The Importance of Orbital Vacations

Question: Where are we in the trajectory of space travel?

Burt Rutan: Space travel is kind of a strange phrase.  I don’t think we’ve done space exploration, which is the moon landings.  We go to the International Space Station.  We’ve had suborbital spaceflights and really none of that meets the definition of most people think about travel.  In other words, going somewhere and coming back because you want to be there.  The only thing that you could look at as travel I think would be the lunar flights and those were explorations.  They weren’t travel in the sense that we think about travel.  I don’t think we’re going to see space travel in my lifetime.  I don’t think we’re going to be going outside the atmosphere to go to Sydney or Europe.  The reason is that’s not a practical suborbital flight.  You know people think gee Rutan went to space just over Mojave, so therefore he could turn around and build something to go to Australia in 45 minutes.  Well you could, but if you did it like I went to go to space you would accelerate energetically for several minutes and you would fly six or seven times as high as the International Space Station and you would not be able to survive reentry over Australia because you’re going steep, so this business of having a rocket go fast and then a reentry to land doesn’t make any sense unless you’re only going say three, four hundred miles. 

So what I’m doing with commercial suborbital spaceflight is really an experience base.  In other words, I want to feel like what the people do that are at the International Space Station.  I want to float around weightless for minutes.  I want to see the black sky and the thin film of the atmosphere and I want to feel this displacement from the earth, which all the astronauts and I’m tired of listening to them tell that you know it’s a life changing experience.  Well yeah, okay, I want to go too and you know what is it?  Well it’s cool, okay.  Let’s do it.  A lot of people will do that.  I don’t think the most important thing of what Richard Branson my customer, is funding here is just for the experience. I like to make the comparison: when we had home computers in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and so on we didn’t know what they were for really and very few people do with home computers what we did for the first decade of home computers.  Okay, now we wouldn’t have had the Internet if IBM was only making six mainframes a year.  It couldn’t happen.  The fact that we had computers for ten years or twelve years to play games, the fact that we did that just for fun enabled the internet to exist because now you’ve got hundreds of thousands of homes having computers and then when a very smart guy came along, Al Gore, and he created the internet you’ve got this breakthrough then and all of the sudden we’ve got everything.  We’ve got our commerce, our communication. It’s everything, our research and our travel you know or our substitution for travel. 

So what we’re doing in commercial space with suborbital flights that’s going to be history will show the most important thing is we are going to put tens of thousands and I think we can do a hundred thousand in about twelve years of operations, people outside the atmosphere and these people now will be creative people because they can do and think of what they want to think about on why I’m here.  A NASA astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut can’t be creative.  He has to follow a predetermined detailed checklist written by an engineer and if he gets a little creative he’ll never fly again. There has been manned spaceflight for 46 years.  We’ve had it for all this time and it’s always been constrained to not a lot of creativity to say hey, what else can we do here than is what is written on this checklist?  The fact that the public will go out because they want to see the view.  They want to float around.  They want to go there.   These people are not going to be constrained at all in terms of the duties that they do while they’re there.  They bought the time.  They’re getting the experience and I have a feeling that out of those hundred thousand people that fly in those in those 40 or 50 spaceships over the next say 15 years there is going to be some smart folk in there that have an enormous breakthrough just like Al did and says oh, the internet.  You know and what will come out of it will not be what we expect now.  Just like our commerce and communication and research and everything that we have on the Internet now was not what we thought would come out of the personal computer the first ten years. 

Question: What do we know will come out of space travel?

Burt Rutan:  The thing that we will know we’ll come out of it if we are able to go out and build 50 spaceships and fly a hundred thousand people in the first 12 years let’s say.  The thing that we know will come out of it is that we will have enormous improvements in the safety and enormous, enormous improvements in the operating cost.  You know what is being charged now initially can be charged because there is a lot of very rich people that would like to be an astronaut.  You can go out in a couple years and fly all of those people.  What is important is that there is going to be a lot less risk because you mature safety by flying a lot, that’s why manned spacecraft is now more dangerous the last decade than it was the first decade and it has been.  You know it’s only been two accidents.  We killed 14 people and overall 4 percent of the people that have left the atmosphere have died in one of those 4 accidents, two Russian and two US.  And when you have a transportation system that the price of propellant is essentially negligible something is very wrong.  If you look at any other transportation system, a car, a motorcycle, a train, an oil tanker, an airliner, you name it; about a quarter to a third of the operating cost is buying the propellant.  If you apply that to space travel you could do a SpaceShipTwo flight for about $475 and you can go to orbit for about $12,000.  Now I’m not suggesting that just around the corner there are things that are so efficient that the propellant is a third of the cost, but certainly eventually it will get there if there is some volume, if there is some demand and when you have that then it attracts investment and then when the costs come down you know everything piles on and grows and expands.  That’s what I’m hoping to do and I’m doing it on suborbital now because there are some breakthroughs that we can achieve those kinds of results on suborbital spaceflight.  We don’t know how to do it going to orbit.  No one knows how to make going to orbit orders of magnitude safer and orders of magnitude more affordable. 

I’m taking this step because I think achieving something that has never existed in manned spaceflight and that is high volume and public access.  I think it’s important to do that and to do it as soon as possible.  That will breed the investment to go out and solve the other problems, so that people can afford to go to that resort hotel on orbit in the earth and take that shore excursion, which is a trip to swing around the moon and then back.  You know rich people get that neat shore excursion.  I think that sort of thing can happen only if there is a high volume, which will bring the cost way down and people say wait a minute, you can make money doing this, you know big money and they will.  People in this business, flying people will make very large profits compared to people that are developing a general aviation airplane or a new airliner. 

Recorded on January 25, 2010

People used to say that the Internet was all fun and games; it took years for it to become everything. Burt Rutan thinks the same will happen with space travel.

Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.

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