Space for Humanity: Yet another New Space vapor project?

The all-but-defunct XCOR Aerospace once promised to fly citizen astronauts into space on its Lynx rocketplane. Credit: XCOR Aerospace

The all-but-defunct XCOR Aerospace once promised to fly citizen astronauts into space on its Lynx rocketplane. Credit: XCOR Aerospace

Silicon Valley venture capitalists want to give away a trip to space. They claim to be promoting diversity in the space industry, but they are really investing in the non-profit version of vaporware. Even if Space for Humanity sends someone into space, its approach is the least effective way to achieve the diversity it seeks.

The news came at last month’s NewSpace conference. Angel investor Dylan Taylor has $10 million in backing from fellow entrepreneurs to run a contest that will turn a lucky winner into an astronaut. The 2017 contest will pick one person to fly on a World View balloon into the stratosphere by the end of 2018. But their ambitions don’t end there. By 2022 they plan to send someone into orbit, by 2027 to the Moon, and by 2030 some lucky person gets to go into “deep space”. They even claim they will send 10,000 people into space within the next ten years.

Mainstream media did not pick up the story which remained firmly within the space media bubble. Check out coverage at Space News, Room, and Leonard David. None went beyond just-the-facts reporting to evaluate whether Space for Humanity can deliver.

Space for Humanity claims to be vehicle-agnostic. That's an admirably impartial stance driven by the fact that they have no vehicle. The history of space tourism has never been interrupted by success:

  • Virgin Galactic has promised to fly people across the boundary of space within a year - and has done so every year for the past twelve years.
  • X-Cor Aerospace’s ambitions of flying suborbital rocketplanes ended a month ago when it fired its remaining staff.
  • WorldView Voyages announced plans to use stratospheric balloons to send people nowhere near space.

These are just the latest in a line of projects that are long on idealism, and even flush with cash, but short on results. Unfortunately, well-intentioned space enthusiasts have built their own plans on this NewSpace vaporware. Teachers in Space,  Citizen in Space, Project Possum, and others promised to turn everyday people into astronauts. Deodorant brand Axe even tried to turn 22 over-scented young men into astronauts. (They later opened applications to women.)

None of them sent a single person into space.

Space for Humanity is putting the same citizen astronaut cart before the launch vehicle horse. It does not control its own destiny and cannot guarantee it will deliver.

Space for Humanity also claims it wants to improve diversity in space exploration - an admirable goal. The Space Age has left women, minorities, and anyone who isn’t American or Russian standing on the sidelines. Broadening participation in the United States beyond the traditional white boys club and letting the rest of the world take part in the exploration of space could make our planet a better place.

But how does sending one person a year into the stratosphere, much less into orbit, achieve this? If Taylor and his backers really want to broaden diversity in the space industry, then they should spend their time and money on getting results.

Mentorship programs, scholarships and research grants are traditional approaches that actually help the under-represented overcome barriers on the engineering career path. The traditional approach isn’t sexy. It won’t generate headlines. It’s hard work. But it it does work.

Unfortunately the bubble-within-a-bubble that is the Silicon Valley space startup culture can’t see beyond their boyhood fantasies. Space for Humanity’s backers get to congratulate each other at their conferences. But at the end of the day it will spend a lot of money to do very little.