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Sensemaker: Wally Funk is going to space

Friday 2 July 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The last Nato troops based in Afghanistan departed Bagram air base after a 20-year mission that leaves the country, according to one British general, “at grave risk of collapse”.
  • Kim Leadbeater, sister of the murdered MP Jo Cox, won the Batley and Spen by-election by a whisker for Labour (more below).
  • Haribo said it was having trouble getting sweets from Germany to Britain because of a shortage of lorry drivers.

Key number: 1 – yesterday’s uptick in UK Covid deaths compared with last Thursday. The 7-day rolling average of case numbers rose by 7,845 in the same period.

Wally Funk is going to space

She’s 82. She trained as an astronaut in the 1960s as part of Nasa’s Mercury programme but never went to space. She says of the Mercury astronaut trainers: “They told me that I had done better and completed the work faster than any of the guys.” But despite four direct entreaties to Nasa she was never included in a space crew. When Eileen Collins became the first woman to fly in a Space Shuttle, Funk, at 56, was told she was too old. Now she’s going to space with Jeff Bezos, his brother and a mystery fourth crew member aboard Bezos’s Blue Origin rocket on 30 July, weather permitting. She’s thrilled.

A lot of other people are going to space too. In principle this includes Richard Branson on 11 July, bringing his blast-off forward to steal Bezos’ thunder. So, as widely reported, there are now three US-based commercial space operations offering tickets to orbit – and in SpaceX’s case beyond; it signed a deal last month to send four paying passengers all the way to the International Space Station between now and 2023. 

Is there really a market for space tourism? Hard to believe given the risks and the cost but apparently so. Shares in Branson’s Virgin Galactic rose 25 per cent when he brought forward its maiden flight and the company claims 600 passengers have put down up to $250,000 each to reserve seats. The fourth passenger on the Blue Origin flight paid $28 million for their seat. It was sold in a charity auction at which 20 bidders went over $20 million. That was the going rate for a seat in a Russian capsule when no one else was offering flights to the ISS, and seven people paid it. SpaceX’s passengers will travel in more comfort, for $55 million each. All four tickets have been sold.

Will they come back? Probably. Virgin Galactic has done 21 test flights of its eight-seat VSS Unity spacecraft without mishap. But space travel of any kind is still orders of magnitude more dangerous than normal flying. Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo, a very similar machine, crashed in 2014, killing one of its pilots. No one has been injured on a Blue Origin test but multiple unmanned SpaceX rockets have crashed in development. 

Does any of this matter? To the astronauts’ families, obviously. Beyond that the only significant aspect of the new commercial space race, apart from its window on the predilections and risk appetite of the ultra rich, is its potential to lower the unit cost of getting freight to orbit. SpaceX’s proven ability to land and reuse boosters is a genuinely big change in this respect. It is throwing mini-satellites into orbit like confetti and they could bring low-cost broadband to billions who currently lack it.

Why give Branson free PR? Always a good question. Three suggestions:

  • The VSS Unity is the inverse of the usual pattern in technology development in the US and the UK. Historically the blue-sky thinking has been done in Britain (Whittle’s jet engine, de Havilland’s Comet) and the money has been made in the States. This time the tech genius is Mojave’s legendary Burt Rutan, and some of the ticket money might actually come back to Holland Park.
  • Even though this “space” ship only goes 55 miles up, its existence still owes something to a yearning for exploration. It’s ultimately funded by generations of Brits flying Virgin Atlantic to the US to see if all the talk of big skies and big apples is true.
  • Echoes of Chuck Yeager. Branson’s spacecraft is the only one in the race to leave earth under a mothership. Just like Yeager when he dropped from a B-29 in Glamorous Glennis to break the sound barrier in 1947.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Kim Leadbeater MP
After a seriously nasty campaign Jo Cox’s sister held the Yorkshire seat of Batley and Spen for Labour by 323 votes. It was a hair’s breadth even with a low turnout, but Kim Leadbeater can argue it would have been a substantially wider margin without George Galloway’s customarily shameless pursuit of Muslim voters. She said: “If I can be half the MP Jo was I know that I’ll do her proud and I’ll do my family proud. Fingers crossed.” The result shows the Tories’ momentum in the North is not unstoppable and it gives Sir Keir Starmer breathing space as leader, but not much more than that. Angela Rayner chose election day to let the Times know she had the backing of three big left-wing unions should she choose to mount a leadership challenge. Nice.

New things technology, science, engineering

Flying cars, seriously
It may be a seasonal thing. Perhaps we should check. But there’s been another rash of flying car stories. The WSJ reports that four air taxi start-ups have been taken public in recent months in the US by special purpose acquisition companies, and the Guardian has given space to a) a Hyundai claim that it will have “urban air mobility” pods zipping round wealthy cities by the end of the decade and b) a Slovakian inventor-preneur making his first inter-city flight, from Nitra to Bratislava. The idea of scaling up toy-size drones to carry rich folk in a hurry is seductive. Will it ever really catch on? Instinct says no but traffic jams are hell.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Flex vax
This is your end-of-week round-up of moderately positive Covid headlines we’ve missed. i) A Cambridge study found that FFP3 masks (sturdier and snugger than bog-standard, but still affordable) can cut infection rates by up to 100 per cent compared with cheaper disposable paper ones. ii) An Oxford study found that an AstraZeneca vaccine followed a month later by a Pfizer one is safe and generates a stronger immune response than two AZ doses. iii) More Oxford research showed that long gaps between AstraZeneca doses – including gaps of up to 10 months – generated stronger responses than the four-week gap used in original trials. All in all the AZ vaccine is looking pretty effective. Shame the company muddied its announcements so badly and has taken so long to apply for a US licence, which is now delaying the resumption of trans-Atlantic travel.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Exxon exposed
Exxon’s CEO has been forced to apologise for company lobbyists filmed by undercover reporters admitting they supported a carbon tax only as a “talking point” and considered the Biden administration’s carbon-cutting plans “insane”. They also admitted Exxon had in the past attacked climate science through “shadow groups”. The footage was shot by Greenpeace but has been aired extensively including on Channel 4. That Exxon buried its own damning research on fossil fuels and climate change from the 1970s onwards is well-known, but this is the first time such candid admissions have been caught on tape – tape likely to play a starring role in hundreds of lawsuits now being brought against the oil majors in the US. Big Tobacco was just the start.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Tax plan
A plan ($) for a 15 per cent global minimum corporation tax to crack down on tax avoidance by big multinationals has won the backing of 130 countries including tax havens like Bermuda, Samoa, the Seychelles and the British Virgin Islands. The plan is backed by the US and drawn up by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It also has the support of other big economies including China and India. The OECD reckons governments lose up to $240 billion a year in dodged corporate tax, which sounds like an underestimate. Janet Yellen called the agreement historic. It’s certainly progress, but there are nearly 70 countries not (yet) signed up. Which of them will see an opportunity here?

Thanks for reading, and please share this around. 

Giles Whittell

Photographs Getty Images, Blue Origin, Klein Vision

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