Inside the new space race w/Nick Schmidle


IMAGE/Asian Review of Books

There has been a lot of hype of late over the 21st century “space race”, which pits some of the world’s richest men – Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos – against one another in a contest to see who will pioneer a new age of space adventure. But as Nick Schmidle, journalist and author of the recent Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut discusses here, this is not just about space. There is machoism at play, and pressing questions over whose interests these men are serving: theirs and their wealthy customers, or humankind’s at large?

A conversation about the marriage of extreme wealth and hubris, and what’s next in “space tourism” and our exploration of the final frontier.

Niki Seth-Smith:

Hello and welcome to With Reason, coming to you from New Humanist magazine and The Rationalist Association. We’re all about exploring matters of reason and unreason, criticism and debate, all through conversations with writers and thinkers about their work and ideas. I’m Niki Seth-Smith, and I’m Samira Shackle. Now on here, With Reason, we like to focus on philosophy, culture and science. And we mean “science” in the broadest sense. In this series, we’ve heard from anatomist Alice Roberts about the significance of human burials through the ages, we’ve heard from data scientist Pragya Agarwal discussing motherhood and choice, and the brilliant physicist Carlo Rovelli has talked rather poetically about quantum mechanics, truths and the humbling power of science.

Samira Shackle:

Now that word “humble” probably isn’t the first that comes to mind when you think about last year when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Virgin’s Richard Branson made history within days of each other by travelling beyond the Earth’s atmosphere on spacecraft that their own private companies had built. So a lot has been made of the spectacle of these men’s egos knocking together. But Niki, your guest today knows the story and the context to it better than most of us do. He’s the journalist Nick Schmidle, and for his latest book, he’s taking a really close look at contemporary space travel. I’ll be listening in to this one. So I’ll let you tell us more about Nick and I’ll be back with you later for a catch up.

Niki Seth-Smith:

Thanks Samira. So, next, a journalist who writes for the likes of The New Yorker, the Atlantic and the Washington Post. And his first book was about his tumultuous years spent in Pakistan, so he clearly likes an adventure. In 2014, he started tracking the rise of Virgin Galactic. That’s the American spaceflight company founded by Richard Branson and his British Virgin Group. His book, Test Gods, looks at that story and more, taking us into the work and lives of the people fuelling the new space race. It’s a tale of genius, lunacy and optimistic evangelism that’s really only just begun. But it’s also personal for Nick. His own father was a fighter pilot, having attended Top Gun, that military school made famous in the 1986 Tom Cruise film. I asked what drew him to document the private space race, and why is it such an exciting field today.

Nick Schmidle:

I was drawn to the story and drawn to this sort of unfamiliar industry in some ways by a terrible tragedy, by the Virgin Galactic crash on October 31 2014. I remember getting the news alert. And looking at the framework like the nut graph of this news story and thinking to myself, wait a second, there’s a company based in California owned by a British billionaire who lives on a private island that’s flying winged rocket ships in the California desert, one of which just crashed and killed a test pilot. I was like, you know, I didn’t even know, we were still, I didn’t even know that there were test pilots still doing this sort of thing, never mind kind of in that, you know, in this industry and in this world. So that was what piqued my interest. And I went out there shortly after that, to explore what was possible for what became a very long magazine piece for The New Yorker. So that was kind of my entry into the world.

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