Project Moneyshot?

Yesterday – the anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering spaceflight – Russian billionaire Yuri Milner made international headlines with his announcement of an initial $100 million investment called the Breakthrough Starshot.

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Milner joined by host of scientific celebrities including Stephen Hawking, Freeman Dyson, and Ann Druyan

Starshot’s proposed plan would unfold like this: sometime, decades hence, a rocket ship would deliver a thousand or more craft, each about the size of deck of cards, into space. This swarm of spacecraft would unfurl tiny solar sails. Then, a giant laser array on Earth would send beams of intense coherent light, accelerating the fleet up to about 20% the speed of light.

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Assuming accurate navigation, in about 20 years, the space swarm would arrive at Alpha Centauri, some 4.37 light years from us. The craft would hurtle past the star system, beaming information and pictures back to Earth. Estimated total cost? Somewhere between $5-10 billion.

Russian billionaire? Check. Giant laser? Check. Someone get Ian Fleming’s estate on the phone…

Milner fits perfectly into the category of historical actors I have called visioneers: he possesses an expansive view of how his technological projects could alter the future; he has a scientific background; and he has the means and skill to promote and publicize his ideas, taking them to a wide audience. And – unlike the people I wrote about in my book – Milner has the added benefit of gazillions of dollars to fuel his dream.

When I read about Breakthrough Starshot in The New York Times this morning, more than anything I was drawn to the comments (yes, I read them). Other than those people who wrote to say the whole idea was stupid – a not terribly helpful critique – many remarks fell into two main categories.

Group One said (paraphrasing): “This is an awesome idea. It will inspire people to study science. Humanity needs big ideas. We’re a curious species. We should, nay, we need to do this. Ad astra!!”

Group Two wasn’t so boosterish: “We have real problems here and now. This money could be better spent right here in our communities. Moreover, isn’t this just part of the larger plan of the rich and powerful seeking ways off this rock when everything heads south? Tax these people now!”

More than anything, people’s reactions reminded me of public debates in the mid-1970s about the future possibilities of building large-scale settlements that would float freely out in space. Associated most closely with the visioneering ideas of Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill, the idea of space colonies provoked a very similar response four decades ago.

A good sense of this polarization can be found in the pages of a book that appeared in 1977. Edited by Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, Space Colonies presented a myriad array of opinions and responses from experts, pundits, and ordinary citizens about O’Neill’s proposed off-world habitats.

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Cover of Brand’s 1977 book

About four out of five correspondents who wrote to Brand viewed the idea of space colonies favorably. Some imagined space settlements as an extension of the groovy “back to land” lifestyle that was popular in the 1970s. (This was ironic given that space settlements would be hugely intensive in terms of resources and capital and require Apollo-like management to succeed.) More sadly, a few people expressed fatalism and even a sense of desperation about the future need for settlements in space: “Whatever I can do,” said one, “may help my beautiful daughter to slip away from this failing civilization here on Earth.”

But space colonies also provoked outrage among some readers. Spending such huge amounts of money to circumvent the planet’s limits struck one reader as “well thought out, rational, very alluring” and also “quite mad.” It appeared as technological fix taken to its logical extreme. For these people, the idea of space settlements violated British economist E.F. Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” philosophy and his ideals of small-scale appropriate technology. Others detected signs of a massive new federal program and the military-industrial complex at work – “the same old technological whiz-bang and dreary imperialism,” one person said.

An illustration in Brand’s book captured readers’ split opinions. One page showed an artist’s colorful rendition of a spherical space settlement. The facing page presented a 19th century photograph of a Native American couple who appeared to be gazing at it – the text added above the man’s head said, “Goodbye. Good luck.” The woman’s reaction? “Good riddance.”

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I still believe visioneers as a species are essential components to a healthy technological or innovation ecosystem. But, since my book appeared in 2013, I’ve attenuated my enthusiasm. Specifically, I’ve become increasingly skeptical of many of the individuals who fit the category I described. This is, in part, because so many of them – Milner, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, et al. – are white males with Silicon Valley connections and an Ivy League pedigree. Where are the women and people of color? And what’s with the space obsession?

I’m old enough to remember watching the final Apollo missions on television. Part of me loves the idea of spacecraft speeding off to another star system. But another part of me has to agree with those who suggested less-than-radical things like fixing the water supply in Flint or repairing America’s infrastructure. Sure, it’s not as glitzy-sexy as spacecraft and giant lasers. But we should want expansive visions of technological possibilities both here and propelling us out to the stars. That’s a future I’d love to see. Even if it does have a giant laser in it.

Elon Musk, Visioneer?

In 2013, shortly after The Visioneers came out, the publisher sent me on a short book tour. At talks I gave – from San Jose, Los Angeles, & Philadelphia to Seattle and Washington DC – the question I heard most from audiences was “Who is a visioneer today?” My answer was always “Elon Musk.”

This week, a new biography of Musk by tech journalist Ashlee Vance comes out. I’m looking forward very much to reading it. (With a subtitle of “…the Quest for a Fantastic Future,” how could I not?)

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In the meantime, I thought I would revisit that question that audiences asked me – is Musk a visioneer?

The title of my book is a portmanteau of visionary and engineer. The term “visioneer” refers to a person with a hybrid set of talents and interests – someone who has a robust and expansive view of the future; someone who also has the technical chops – usually bolstered by a degree in science or engineering; and, finally, someone who is eager to bring that vision to a wider audience (this could be the public, investors, policy makers).

I anchored my book around two such visioneers – physicist Gerard O’Neill and engineer K. Eric Drexler. O’Neill was famous for his promotion of space settlements in the 1970s. Drexler achieved notoriety for his advocacy in the 1980s and 1990s for a radical form of molecular engineering that he christened nanotechnology.

How does Musk’s background and interests compare? 

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Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson for Businessweek

First, there’s the obvious – Musk is a celebrity…the living model for Tony Stark aka Ironman. O’Neill, on the other hand, is largely a footnote to history, except among space and tech buffs while Drexler is living in semi-anonymity in the U.K. after his nano-star rose and fell.

But all three shared a passion for space exploration. Drexler, for example, was a devotee of O’Neill’s ideas in the 1970s and his popular books on nanotech pitch molecular engineering as a path to the stars. Even though Musk’s fantastic successes with SpaceX seem to speak to more prosaic interests – launching people and things into orbit – the South African-born entrepreneur has been an outspoken champion of making humanity a multi-planet species with Mars as the target. As Musk himself quipped – “I’d like to die on Mars. Just not on impact.”

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Artist’s rendition of a Musk’ian craft landing on the Red Planet

Obviously, Musk was massively more successful at commercializing his visions – his success with PayPal provided the bankroll and business credibility to launch ventures like Tesla Motors and SpaceX. But O’Neill once started a tech company called Geostar – the goal was to provide satellite-based communication and location services. Think of a device that would allow you to know where you are and also to talk to people. What’s that? You have one? Hmmm. Well, O’Neill launched his company in 1983, when Steve Jobs was just dreaming – maybe – about the iPhone. O’Neill attracted investors such as physicist Luis Alvarez and Hewlett-Packard’s tech guru Barney Oliver. Geostar, with O’Neill’s guidance, raised millions of dollars and carried out ground tests until its founder’s diagnosis of leukemia in 1985 ended the effort.

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Schematic of the Geostar system, c.1985

Controversy swirls around Musk today just as it did, in more limited fashion, with O’Neill and Drexler. Drexler’s vision for nanotechnology inspired many in the public as well as some scientists. Policy makers used – or even co-opted – the popularity of nanotechnology to develop a less expansive national R&D program. For Musk, much of the press concerns his personal life as much as it does his technological visions or his business activities. In 2012, for example, Musk made a much hyped and heralded announcement about his vision for a high-speed transport system called the Hyperloop.

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Gerard O’Neill – who loved big engineering projects, especially those connected to trains and transportation – would have appreciated this idea. In the 1970s – with NASA funding – O’Neill spent a year at MIT working on his “mass driver” concept. This used electromagnetic force to propel objects at high speeds. Shortly before his death in 1992, O’Neill speculated about how this might be used as the basis for a train system. He called this VSE – short for velocity, silence, efficiency. Unrealized plans for high-speed trains and transport systems abound, of course. But it’s hard not to see slight shades of O’Neill’s visions in Musk’s techno-dreams.

However, when we start to think about how these visions of the technological future might be realized, things diverge. O’Neill’s vision for the “humanization of space”, as he phrased it, was tied to a NASA-based model. He was hard-pressed to realistically argue for space settlements without invoking some large Apollo-scale program. Drexler went in the opposite direction. Nanotechnology, he argued, was potentially too dangerous – remember “gray goo”!? – to be a government-developed technology and, moreover, this wouldn’t comport with the libertarian-rooted political views he had in the late 1980s. Musk has managed to split the difference – SpaceX and Tesla are private companies. yet, SpaceX’s biggest customer is NASA while those Tesla cars motor about on the public infrastructure and are charged on the public grid.

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I can see a darker side, however, when comparing Elon Musk today with past visioneers like O’Neill and Drexler. It speaks to a broader issue endemic in today’s Silicon Valley ecosystem – all three of them were educated at elite Ivy League schools. More problematic –  all three are white men.

A question I often got on my book tour was “where are the women and people of color in your story?” This was always an uncomfortable moment for me – there weren’t many and I tried to explain why this was the case. The issue had to be confronted head-on but the answer was always unsatisfying, rooted not as it was in the history I had written but in larger systemic failures in society. In the end, I encouraged my audience to think about ways in which visioneers like Musk (or O’Neill and Drexler) were educated, encouraged, nurtured that resulted in others being left out. Rephrased – Is Musk’s success story a synecdoche for Silicon Valley’s corporate monoculture that slights women, blacks, Hispanics, et al.? 

I admire what Musk has accomplished in the technological realm. I’m stoked to read Vance’s biography to learn more (reviews I’ve read are positive). I’d like to think Musk stands as an inspiration for young engineers of all backgrounds to think about they might shape the technological future. And, of course, I wonder how he will be viewed as a historical figure 50 years from now. Largely forgotten? Like the tycoons – Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller – of the First Gilded Age?

Perhaps Musk will surprise us yet again and turn his visioneering skills to crafting not just a cooler technological future but a more robust and equitable social future as well.

Observing the Astronomical Sublime

Note – A few years ago, I was asked to review Elizabeth Kessler’s 2012 book Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime. The review came out in a fairly obscure academic journal with far less exposure than Kessler’s fine book warrants. With the 25th anniversary of the launch of Hubble this week, I wanted to present the review to a wider audience and make a few additional observations.

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One can quibble about the details but the facts stand for themselves – the Hubble Space Telescope is the most influential (and certainly most expensive) science facility in human history. Its influence can be measured not just the number of scientific papers it has produced but also in terms of the global reach the images from HST have and the ways in which they have taken root deeply into the popular imagination.

The ways in which these images come to us are the subject of Elizabeth Kessler’s wonderful book Picturing the Cosmos. I encourage anyone who is fascinated by Hubble’s photographs and their impact on the visual imagination over the last quarter-century to pick up a copy.

Just writing that – a quarter-century – stands out. There is a generation of scientists now who literally cannot remember a time when there was no Hubble Telescope. The ways in which Hubble’s data is used and re-used have shaped astronomical practice. Look at this graph:

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This image alone makes it clear how Hubble has changed the ways in which astronomers do their science. Somewhere around 2003, the number of publications using data from the HST archive surpassed those produced from actual observations. The number has continued to climb. And, today, something like 40% of HST-related publications use only archived data.

In 1998, the Hubble Heritage Team was preparing to release a new image of the planetary nebula NGC 3132. Hubble Heritage images appear not just in research papers but on calendars, coffee mugs, and the walls of art galleries. This is partly why HST is so influential…they literally shape how many citizens and scientists around the world see the universe. When describing how a balance between aesthetic inclinations and scientific veracity was found for the NGC 3132 picture, one team member explained, “We tend to look for things that ‘look right.’ And what exactly looks right is maybe a little hard to quantify.”

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Look familiar?  NGC 3132; Source.

This quote come near the end of Kessler’s excellent and thought-provoking new book, captures a great deal of the tension inherent in making and viewing contemporary astronomical images. Such scientific images have an inherent aesthetic and artistic quality. As Kessler’s book reveals, they do all sorts of work besides “merely” conveying scientific information.

The “astronomical sublime” is central to Kessler’s analysis of Hubble images. Primarily focusing on the work of the Hubble Heritage Project, she expands on the sublime’s characteristics features (astonishment, the infinite, and even terror) and extends it beyond its origins with 18th century scholars like Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke. Contemporary Hubble images not only reflect qualities of the sublime but also resemble earlier traditions in western art. We can compare Hubble images to famous 19th century landscape paintings by artists such as Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt.

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Thomas Moran’s Cliffs of the Upper Colorado River, Wyoming Territory (1882)

The famous 1995 “Pillars of Creation” image – a view of the Eagle Nebula – has parallels to, for example, those the towering cloud and rock formations found in Romantic scenes of the American West.

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These 19th century scenes of the American frontier once conveyed natural splendor to parlor-bound citizens. They also communicated the ideology of manifest destiny and the transformative power of the frontier as Frederick Jackson Turner famously noted. In similar fashion, images from Hubble reflect their own historical moment by stimulating public interest and continued funding for NASA’s continued exploration of the cosmic frontier. In the early 1990s, when the telescope’s initial spherical aberration threatened to undermine public and political support altogether, images from Hubble proved especially critical. They convinced scientists, politicians and tax payers that a hobbled Hubble could still produce good science and a repaired telescope even more so.

Kessler’s book blends the histories of art and astronomy with oral history interviews and observations of contemporary astronomers at work. She also engages with the work of other scholars who have considered the nature and use of astronomical images. The book, for example, finds common ground with Samuel Edgerton and Michael Lynch’s earlier work on digital image processing.1 Also critical are the ways in which astronomical images – especially the highly visible ones from the Hubble Heritage Project – perform functions besides those narrowly construed as “scientific.”

Look at this still from the 1990s show Star Trek Voyager what’s in the background? A Hubble image.

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Years ago I interviewed NASA administrator Ed Weiler. At the time, NASA was defending the budget for the James Webb Space Telescope (sometimes, but erroneously – I think – billed as the successor to Hubble). One of the things we talked about was the popularity of Hubble and how this helped sell JWST to a skeptical Congress. Weiler remarked – and I’m paraphrasing – that if he wanted to know which Hubble images were popular, all he had to do was watch Voyager (or check out the calendars and coffee-table books packed with Hubble images.)

Kessler’s treatment of HST images is far from naïve, however. Kessler explains how Hubble images are “doubly translated”, moving from object into digital data and then into image. This issue of conversion has long been an issue for astronomers. How a Hubble image is produced is as important as the image itself. Starting with proposal submission and moving to data collection, calibration, analysis, and presentation, we encounter persistent questions about the “objectivity” of scientific images. What constitutes a legitimate image when so much massaging and processing goes producing it? However, issues about authenticity existed long before the advent of digital images, starting when astronomical images were first captured via hand-made drawings and then recorded with photographic techniques.

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A different kind of archive…the plate stacks at Harvard College Observatory. Source

At the same time, there is something profoundly different about digital images. New tools and standardized formats developed in the late 1970s and 1980s facilitated the circulation of digital data. Meanwhile,image processing technologies (derived from classified reconnaissance activities) gave scientists greater flexibility in using contrast, color, and cosmetics to interact with their data. Although positioned as “rational” depictions of the cosmos, Hubble images reflect aesthetic and personal choices consciously made by scientists as well as the technological legacy of the Cold War. If these ideas and images intrigue you, check out Kessler’s excellent book.

  1. Michael Lynch and Samuel  Y. Edgerton, “Aesthetics and Digital Image Processing: Representational Craft in Contemporary Astronomy,” in Picturing Power: Visual Depiction and Social Relations, ed. Gordon Fyfe and John Law (London: Routledge, 1988), 186. []