Opening Up Space to Everyone and Their Mother

Growing up in the 1990s, I was entranced by Star Trek. Specifically, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, and Voyager. Most Star Trek fans would argue that the 1990s were “peak Star Trek”, given the amount and quality of content produced in the Star Trek universe in that decade. I particularly loved the optimism about humanity’s future and our ability to travel through space one day.

I actually cried at the end of the final episode of Voyager, when the Voyager crew finally made it home after seven years. And that’s saying something for a 17-year-old boy. That show had gotten me through many tough teenage years, and I was supremely sad to see it end.

That final episode aired at the end of my junior year in high school, when I was applying to colleges and trying to decide what my major would be. Initially I applied to schools as a computer science (CS) major, as I enjoyed the programming challenges in my high school CS courses.

However, one day I was studying the course catalog for the University of Texas at Austin, and I stumbled across a description of the Aerospace Engineering major. And yes, it was a physical course catalog I read, which UT sent me in the mail. Hard to fathom doing that today, huh?

As I read the Aerospace Engineering description, it quickly hit me that THIS was my major. My love of physics, CS, and of course Star Trek made this decision a slam dunk.

After visiting the campus, talking with an Aerospace professor about switching my major, and sending my resume to a special admissions board within the Aerospace department, I was in!

The Status Quo

I carried the optimism from my years of watching Star Trek into college, where I quickly learned two important things: space flight was HARD, and space flight was EXPENSIVE.

My initial seven years of college took place in the final decade of the Space Shuttle program. While an incredible technical achievement that allowed the U.S. to launch the Hubble Space Telescope (and later repair, twice) and construct the International Space Station (ISS), the Shuttle had a number of weaknesses and disasters that eventually led to its retirement

Something that has been stuck in my head ever since is how much it cost to put a single pound of payload or people into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) with the Shuttle: $29,665. Nearly thirty thousand dollars! (Note: In 2021 dollars).

That is ridiculously expensive. How can we launch millions of people into space a la Star Trek if we have to pay that much to get a single friggin pound into LEO, much less higher orbits or other planets?

The answer: we won’t. And we didn’t. 

The Lucky Few

Instead, for the last six decades, government agencies such as NASA have hand-selected from hundreds of thousands (maybe millions?) of applicants the lucky few that have been given the opportunity to visit space at $30K/pound.

Less than six hundred people have visited space in the 61 years since Yuri Gagarin became the first person to visit space in 1961. That’s less than 10 people a year, out of a global population of billions.

There are still so few people that have visited space that you can easily find lists online of the names of every person who has ever been to space

While I have never been to space, I have met a number of these lucky few space travelers.

As an undergraduate, I worked as a cooperative education student for United Space Alliance at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, within the ISS Training Department. I became a certified instructor for three ISS courses, built and taught the first ISS training course for the GPS orbit and attitude determination system used on the ISS, and was rated one of the top four instructors in the training division by the 2004 astronaut class. I.e. I worked my butt off while I was there.

And I’m pretty sure I was selected as the 2007 National Cooperative Education Student of the Year in large part because it sounds so sexy and impressive to say that as a student I was TRAINING ASTRONAUTS.

But why does this job sound so impressive? Because human space travel was (and still is) a very rare and expensive experience. Do you think people would ooo and ahh about training astronauts if a million people went into space every year? I very much doubt it.

The Reality

Why do I keep referring to astronauts as “lucky”? Aren’t astronauts supposed to be the ultimate cream of the crop, selected because they are clearly better than all other candidates? 

It turns out that astronauts are just as human as the rest of us. I’ll never forget when one of my astronaut students (who easily had over a decade of experience on me) freaked out when he thought I might be testing him during a course I taught. No twenty year old undergraduate student should have to calm down someone selected for astronaut training because of a slight possibility they are facing a pop quiz. Aren’t these people supposed to be perfectly composed in stressful situations?

And I wasn’t the only instructor who had challenges with the astronauts I trained. Even as an undergraduate student, I quickly learned who among the astronauts were particularly bad about following the procedures they were taught by instructors, both on the ground while training AND (even more dangerously) on orbit.

Now of course most of the astronauts I worked with were fantastic – supremely professional, friendly, composed, hard working, etc. They were clearly very qualified to be astronauts. 

My point is that astronauts are a mix of strong and not-so-strong folks, just like the millions of other people not accepted by organizations like NASA for space travel. And for every “lucky” person selected to be an astronaut, there are countless others that are just as qualified and deserving to go to space.

Why Everyone Should Be Able to Visit Space

While I believe there are many people that could knock astronaut training out of the park and are just not lucky enough to be selected, my view of who should be able to visit (and eventually live in) space is MUCH broader.

I think everyone who is physically fit enough to withstand the launch and re-entry forces of space travel should be able to visit space. Not just those that can complete traditional rigorous astronaut training.

But why? What’s the point? Well, I think there are a couple main points. 

First, as many space travelers have reported, seeing the Earth from orbit gives you a tremendous new perspective about the size and fragility of our planet. Also known as the Overview Effect, it can have a lifelong impact on your view of the world, and is often credited as one of the inspirations of the modern environmental movement.

I believe that if everyone had the opportunity to visit space and see the Earth from above, we would be doing far more to fight climate change and preserve our planet right now. And if space travel had truly opened up decades ago, as was originally the hope, I suspect we would not be facing the climate change emergency that we find ourselves in today.

The second main point is that giving everyone access to space would likely result in tremendous scientific and technological advances. As Jeff Bezos describes in his 2019 talk “Going to Space to Benefit Earth”, giving millions of entrepreneurs the opportunity to visit space would unleash incredible amounts of creativity and innovation. 

Most people have likely heard about how technologies developed for space travel have made huge contributions to many other industries – e.g., micro computers, wireless headsets, LED lighting, portable cordless vacuums, freeze-dried foods, memory foam, scratch-resistant eyeglass lenses, Mylar, and many others

I believe that giving millions of people, and especially entrepreneurs and technologists, affordable access to space would greatly accelerate this process of discovery and invention of stuff that would change life for everyone on the planet.

Arguments Against Human Space Flight Travel

While I would love to see access to space open to as many people as possible, there are plenty of people who believe human space travel is a total waste of time and money. Which is great – one of the best benefits of living in a free and open society is that people are free to argue about what is best, and that often results in win-win solutions that are even better than anything proposed previously.

So what are the main arguments against human space flight? Let’s discuss two of the big ones.

First, there’s the cost. Which is effectively an opportunity cost: if we’re spending billions on improving access to space, that is billions we’re not spending to fix problems we have here on Earth. E.g., fighting climate change, ending poverty, and eradicating diseases. In fact, I am a big fan of the effective altruism movement, which aims to maximize the impact of every dollar of charitable giving by examining the effectiveness of different charities to save and improve the greatest number of lives around the world.

My counter argument: just because we have problems here on Earth, even if they are very serious problems, doesn’t mean we can ignore long-term investments in space exploration and infrastructure. In fact, the tools we gain by utilizing space will likely prove vital to solving many of the world’s largest current problems. Climate science spacecraft provide information that is critical to measure and fight climate change. GNSS spacecraft provide the navigation and global time keeping capabilities critical for transporting vital resources to the developing parts of the world with high rates of poverty and death from transmitted diseases. We ignore space at our own peril.

The second main argument against human space flight is focused on the word “human”: Why do we have to send people into space? Why can’t we just send robots?

In 2008 I interned at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is world famous for the accomplishments of their robotic spacecraft and landers. One day I found myself in a break room with an experienced member of the JPL staff talking about human space flight. He felt it was a giant waste of time and money: “If advancing science is the goal, there is no reason to send humans into space instead of robots. We could send out MANY more robotic missions with the budget the human space flight program gets every year.”

As a lowly intern I just nodded my head at the time, not confident enough to make a counter argument. If I could go back in time, I’d argue the following: Yes, we could fund more robotic exploration and science missions if we stopped doing all human space flight – BUT, that is likely a penny-wise and pound-foolish approach.

Eventually we HAVE to leave Earth, if for no other reason than our planet will no longer be habitable at some point (a billion years maybe, give or take a few hundred million years). And if we do not continue to advance human space flight now, we could be faced with the extinction of our species if any of a number of unlucky events happens much sooner, such as an asteroid collision with Earth, a nearby star going supernova, etc. 

If what we ultimately care about is the future of our species, it’s incredibly important that we avoid missing the forest for the trees by funding both robotic and human space flight missions.

Finally, I mentioned win-win solutions above: is there a way to make everyone happier about how we spend money on space exploration? If those arguing against human space flight believe that we are short-changing science, one way to mitigate that is by emphasizing the scientific efforts of future humans in space. Fortunately we have been doing just that on the ISS for the entire program’s history.

Ideas for How to Get To Space Better

Now that we’ve discussed WHY we should all visit space, let’s next talk about HOW. We can elucidate forever about how great it would be to get millions of people in space, but if we can’t do that economically by getting the cost WAY down, it will forever remain a pipe dream.

Obviously if it was easy to do this, it would already be done. Anti-gravity generator? Yes please.

But until that technology comes along, we should be doing everything in our power to reduce the cost of space access with current technology. And guess who has been leading that charge? Unfortunately it’s not NASA – though of course it’s not in NASA’s charter to reduce the cost of space access. In fact, one could argue that it’s NASA’s role to do the things that aren’t cost effective or profitable in the near future.

Instead it’s been private companies, such as Blue Origin and SpaceX. Unlike NASA, these companies have to think about how they are going to make money – if not now, then at some point in the (hopefully not too distant) future. That capitalist goal places tremendous emphasis on reducing costs and improving launch efficiency.

One of the first and most dramatic ways both companies have achieved this is to stop throwing away massive parts of the launch vehicle every time they launch. In retrospect, it seems like a no-brainer to do everything possible to land the first stage, even if it means getting a bit less payload in orbit – being able to reuse that stage many times means that overall it will get FAR more payloads into space over its lifetime. The phrase “expendable launch system” should conjure up images of using hundred dollar bills as kindling in a campfire – something so ridiculously wasteful that it almost hurts to watch.

Some may argue it wasn’t until the twenty-first century that we possessed sufficient computational and control system capabilities to make vertical landings of the first stage possible. And perhaps that’s true – though I’m not 100% convinced. And we certainly still haven’t seen NASA or any other government agency around the world pursue and accomplish this feat. 

This mindset of constantly looking for ways to make space access more economical and sustainable is vitally important. In his 2019 talk, Jeff Bezos repeatedly emphasized how Blue Origin has focused on what should remain constant for the foreseeable future regarding access to space, and how they relentlessly work to optimize around those constants to drive down costs and drive up sustainability. 

Dreaming even farther into the future, it would be fantastic to build something like a Skyhook, which would utilize powerful space tethers and a counter weight to move objects from a low orbit (or perhaps even a suborbital trajectory) to much higher orbits or even escape velocity. This kind of infrastructure would require incredible engineering, but would also make space access drastically more affordable.

And of course we must be aware of the environmental impact of space access, especially as more people visit space. For example, the first stage of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket uses the BE-4 engine, which employs liquefied natural gas as fuel. What is the environmental impact of using this fossil fuel for rocket fuel? Especially as compared to engines that use liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen (e.g., the BE-3PM engine used for Blue Origin’s New Shepard) and thus output only water in the form of steam? And especially if that engine is being used for thousands of launches every year in the future? These questions must be addressed.

Living Off Planet

After we have found ways to get out of Earth’s gravity well more effectively, we must turn our attention to how we are going to permanently live outside of that gravity well. Because as mentioned above, eventually Earth will no longer be habitable, and living off Earth ASAP buys our species some insurance against extinction if something happens to Earth much sooner than expected.

Those are my main arguments for humans learning to live off planet, but Jeff Bezos makes an additional argument in his 2019 talk: if we do not send humans to live in space and we continue to use exponentially more energy as time passes, generations living in the not too distant future (100 to 200 years) could face serious energy scarcity. In other words, we will become a mature Type I civilization by using all available energy that reaches our planet from our parent star, and thus run out of energy to expand further.

While there are aspects of this argument I agree with, I must admit I’m not 100% sold on the idea. Could we not robotically harvest solar energy in space and beam it back to Earth? What if we eventually figure out cold fusion? What if we learn how to utilize much more of the geothermal energy within the Earth? And what if the technologies we develop for conserving energy accelerate faster than our tendency to use more energy over time, thus flattening out or even reducing the amount of energy we consume? As Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

However, Jeff’s next argument about HOW we should live outside Earth’s gravity well I could not agree with more. He is absolutely correct that there are no other viable planetary surfaces we could live on in our solar system that would provide the conditions humans have evolved to live in, such as Earth’s gravity field and atmosphere. Therefore I fully agree that the most logical place to live outside of Earth is in large human-constructed space structures such as an O’Neill Cylinder or a Stanford Torus. These structures have immense benefits, such as being close to Earth for communications and travel, having access to plenty of solar power, allowing for perfect climate control, and having a near-zero gravity well to make exploration of the solar system much easier.

The possible lone (and long shot) exception to the lack of viable planetary surfaces we could colonize is a terraformed Venus, given its similar size and mass (and thus gravity field) to Earth, and its proximity to the sun allowing for plenty of solar power (unlike Mars). But the amount of work and time required to terraform Venus is likely orders of magnitude greater than the already astronomical work and time required to build a massive space station like an O’Neill Cylinder – and thus likely impractical for many years (if not forever). But it is still fun to think about of course.

Finally, if we ever want to explore beyond our solar system as a species, we must figure out how to live away from our home planet. Even if we build something as fantastical as a Stellar Engine, allowing us to move our entire solar system (and thus home planet) around the galaxy to explore new systems, we will still need the ability to hop over to inhabitable exoplanets as we pass them if we want to colonize them (or join a civilization already there!).


We’ve covered a lot of ground in this essay, so let’s review the highlights.

First, I’m a Trekkie, through and through, which includes an inherent optimism for humanity’s future and our ability to visit and live in space.

That optimism is vital to hold on to, because while we’ve made tremendous progress in the last 61 years of human space flight, it still remains a hard, expensive, and somewhat dangerous venture. No one would claim that we’ve opened up space to the masses as we did for commercial air travel 61 years after the first flight by the Wright brothers.

Instead, less than 600 people have visited space, and I can say from firsthand experience that these lucky folks are not more deserving of space travel than millions of others around the world. 

If we could get those millions of people into space, they would see for themselves just how small and fragile our home is, and our global civilization would likely be doing much more to fight climate change and protect our planet. We’d also unleash massive amounts of entrepreneurial and creative energy, producing results we can’t even currently imagine.

There are opponents of human space travel though, who feel the money could be better spent on robotic missions or problems on the ground. But I’m convinced that investing in space travel and infrastructure is critical for a) solving our current problems and b) ensuring the long-term survival of our species. I hope eventually those opponents understand that as well.

So how are we going to make space more accessible? By relentlessly focusing on getting costs down. And who is going to do that? Private space companies. Why? Because they have to worry about how to make money. Although far from perfect, capitalism will once again drive our standards higher and higher to make experiences (e.g., air and space travel) more attainable for many more people.

Finally, once we can get out of Earth’s gravity well more affordably, we’ll have to decide where we can live beyond Earth. Given the lack of other Earth-like inhabitable planets or moons in our solar system, the likely best option is to create new artificial environments that closely match the conditions we evolved to live in. That means instead of trying to terraform a planet far from Earth, which may have access to even less energy than Earth, we should build large spinning space structures close to Earth that can host millions of people in an environment well suited for us.

Will everything I describe above be hard to figure out and do? Undoubtedly.

Will it be worth it? Absolutely.

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