Thursday, April 8, 2021

Billionaires in space [To infinity and beyond!]

Kara Swisher interviews Diana Trujillo, a NASA flight director in charge of the robotic arm on the Perseverance Mars rover. Here's some remarks on the in influence of private actors on NASA missions.

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Kara Swisher: Right. So NASA, of course, is a federal agency which has been funded by the government and the American people. But you partner with private companies like Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX among others. Can you explain how those partnerships work?

Diana Trujillo: Yeah. So really the way that I see it is, space exploration — it’s already a very hard job. And if we’re trying to push for diversity in ideas — not only within the team, by having diverse teams to look at the same problem from different angles — the same needs to happen with the industry. We are different people, different industries in this specific case, where different companies are good at different areas. The way that we can really push this — if we really want to get humans to Mars and beyond — we got to call everybody up. And then say, bring the best of you, bring the best that you can do, and just join the party. Because one single entity is not going to get it done. One single company is not going to get it done.

Kara Swisher: And there’s also the financial consideration, because they’re bringing up people for a lot of money and giving you the money. One of the aims of these partnerships is to save agency money and still have resources, correct? They are doing different things that might cost enormous amounts of money.

Diana Trujillo: Yeah. We do different missions. And so I think that — yeah, the question that you’re asking me is, how does the distribution actually occurs? That will be a question for somebody else. But I can tell you that from my perspective is, if those companies can get the job done, why will we not partner with them?

Kara Swisher: Yeah. I just wrote a column saying, I do appreciate that they’re doing this. But the idea of two billionaires essentially having so much influence on the industry and on a public agency — I always think it’s the government’s mission to do big ideas like space exploration.

Diana Trujillo: Yeah. I think — yes, there’s two billionaires trying to actually do this that like rockets. And? Are we going to do more? Are we going to go to space more? Are we going to increase that? Can you then eventually tell me, “Hey, I’m going to take the 5 o’clock shuttle to Mars?” Why would you not want to do that? To me, it doesn’t really matter if there are two billionaires, if there’s five billionaires, if they’re zero billionaires. The question to me is not that. The question to me is how can we actually push this more and not get entangled into the other stuff that do not allow us to continue to progress.

Kara Swisher: Are you worried about — my worry is that two people have influence that all the people of the Earth should have. We all should make these decisions together, not because we happen to be wealthier than other people. That’s all. Just this idea that this is a thing greater than individuals. It’s about a civilization making a decision together. And I’d rather have you in charge than others. That’s all I have to say. [LAUGHTER] If you get my drift.

Diana Trujillo: No, no. I totally hear you. But I also know that we can’t do it alone.

Kara Swisher: Right. So SpaceX just announced the first all-civilian mission, which is slated for late 2021. How do you feel about the idea of civilians in space?

Diana Trujillo: I think that’s great.

Kara Swisher: Why is that? Tell me why you think that’s important.

Diana Trujillo: You know what? I love your question because of how you finished the last one. Which is — you talked about, we should be making these decisions collectively and not just specific people that have the privilege to bring the seat to the table. But how can we make the decisions collectively if we cannot take civilians? We’re also not making it collectively. So I think that opening it up and bringing civilians to space is almost like saying, come and be part of the decision-making by experiencing this yourself and knowing how it is.

Kara Swisher: So right now, it’s very expensive. The reported seat on the SpaceX Crew Dragon with an eight-night stay on the International Space Station is a whopping $55 million. When is it can become actually affordable versus a lot of rich people wandering around space essentially?

Diana Trujillo: So I don’t know about the timeline. The only thing that I can tell you is — my husband works for Virgin Orbit. He’s the V.P. of special projects. And we have this conversation of when is it going to be. And so I think that what gives me encouragement is the possibility was not on the radar. And now, it’s on the radar. And we’re continuing to work to make it less and less expensive once there is more market.

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