I’ve been following with excitement the recent progress in space launches. Earlier this week, Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic team flew a rocket plane 53 miles up, earning him astronaut wings. Next week, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is expected to attempt a similar feat and achieve an even greater altitude. (I once also sat in a Blue Origin passenger capsule; see the picture below. I remained firmly on planet Earth.)
The first space race was between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, a competition between rival superpowers with dramatically different visions for civilization. Some pundits have panned the current space race as a contest between billionaires, but I’m glad that Bezos, Branson, and Elon Musk are pushing the boundaries of commercial flight.
I’ve found space exploration exhilarating since I was a child. My father had a passion for astronomy. We spent many hours on the rooftop of our apartment complex in Singapore — often staying up way past the bedtime designated by my mother 😅 — peering through my dad’s telescope at the planets in our solar system. I remember peering at Alpha Centauri (the closest star system to ours) and wondering if I would visit someday.
Space exploration has been criticized as a waste of resources, given the problems we have here at home. Of course, we need to work on problems such as the still-rampaging Covid-19, climate change, poverty, and injustice. I believe society will be best off if we pursue multiple meaningful projects simultaneously.
As we push further into space, AI will play an increasing role. Our robots will need to be increasingly autonomous because, even though radio waves travel at the speed of light, there won’t be sufficient time to wait for guidance from human operators on Earth. (Mars averages 13 light minutes from Earth, and the more distant Neptune about 250 light minutes.) I was excited when ROS, the open-source Robot Operating System framework launched by Morgan Quigley out of my Stanford group, started running in the International Space Station. And we still have much work ahead!
Private entities are at the center of this week’s space boom, but I would love to see public entities play a bigger role. NASA’s innovations have been widely shared. I’m excited about the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter now roaming Mars (over 1 million times farther than Branson has yet to travel). So let’s make sure to strongly support public space exploration as well. Further advances will come even faster with their help.
Keep learning! 🚀