How the new economics of space exploration changes everything

"One small step for man" costs a lot of money. Who's going to help pay the bill for the next bout of space exploration?

Michio Kaku: We are entering what I call the next golden era of space exploration. The first golden era was back in the 1960s, but it was unsustainable. In 1966 the NASA budget consumed five percent of the entire federal budget! It was impossible to sustain that level of spending; now it’s about .5 percent.

However, now with the injection of new ideas, fresh enthusiasm from the private sector, from Silicon Valley billionaires, have a whole new different landscape. Just recently we had that sensational launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket financed by zero, zero amount of taxpayer’s dollars.

And it shows you that the economics have changed.

And now with the introduction of reusable rocket we’re now talking about opening up the heavens to perhaps a whole new economic landscape that is ten percent the cost of the past. To put me in orbit around the earth costs about $10,000 a pound; that’s my weight in gold. Think of my body made out of solid gold, that’s what it takes me just to go around the earth in near orbit. To go to the moon would cost about $100,000 a pound. To put me on Mars would cost at least a million dollars a pound. That is unsustainable and that’s where the reusable rockets come in because we’re now talking about dropping the cost by a factor of ten.

Instead of $10,000 a pound, SpaceX wants to bring it down to $1000 a pound. December of 2019 NASA will send the LSL booster rocket and the Orion Module around the moon on a robotic unmanned mission; just a few years after that the first astronauts will go back to the moon after a 50-year gap.

Late in the next decade we hope to have a lunar orbiter, a lunar orbiter that gives us a permanent presence in outer space. Not just the space station, but a lunar orbiter. And from that we want to go all the way to Mars.

And so NASA has already now looked at the blueprints, made by Boeing aircraft, concerning what it would take to send probes to Mars. In fact, we may even have a traffic accident around Mars because of the fact that SpaceX, not to be outdone, they’re proposing their big rocket to take us not just to the moon with the Dragon space capsule and the Falcon Heavy rocket, but a new rocket, the BFR rocket, to take us all the way to Mars—even bypassing the lunar orbiter. So we’re talking about a whole new political and technological landscape that, by the 2030s, sometime in the 2030s we will be on Mars.

We have not just new energy and new financing and money coming from Silicon Valley, we also have a new vision emerging. For Elon Musk of SpaceX is to create a multi planet species. However, for Jeff Bezos of Amazon, he wants to make earth into a park so that all the heavy industries, all the pollution goes into outer space and Jeff Bezos wants to set an Amazon type delivery system connecting the earth to the moon. And so he wants to lift all the heavy industries off the planet earth to make earth a paradise and to put all the heavy industries in outer space. Now, I once talked to Carl Sagan and he said that because the earth is in the middle of a shooting gallery of asteroids and comets and meteors it’s inevitable that we will be hit with a planet buster, something like what hit the dinosaur 65 million years ago. We need an “insurance policy.” Now, he was clear to say that we’re not talking about moving the population of the earth into outer space, that costs too much money and we have problems of our own on the earth like global warming. We have to deal with those problems on the earth, not fleeing in outer space. But as an insurance policy we have to make sure that humans become a two planet species. These are the words of Carl Sagan.

And now, of course, Elon Musk has revived this vision by talking about a multi planet species. He wants to put up to a million colonists on the planet Mars sent to Mars by his rockets financed by a combination of public and private funding. And remember he has the vision, the energy and the checkbook to make many of these ideas into a reality.

It costs about $10,000 per pound, to put a person into orbit and $1,000,000 per pound to send a person to Mars. That's a lot of money, especially in these current times of economic austerity. So how are we going to explore space and build an insurance policy, so to speak, to save Earth from global warming? The acclaimed theoretical physicist Michio Kaku says that help could come not from NASA alone but with help from the private sector. Specifically, he posits that inventor, free-thinker, and all-around Silicon Valley disruptor Elon Musk "has the vision, the energy, and the checkbook" to turn these seemingly far-out ideas into a reality. Michio's latest book is The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond Earth.

A map of America’s most famous – and infamous

The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity

Image: The Pudding
Strange Maps
  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

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Average waiting time for hitchhikers in Ireland: Less than 30 minutes. In southern Spain: More than 90 minutes.

Image: Abel Suyok
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Michio Kaku: Genetic and digital immortality are within reach

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