The light and dark side of Inspiration4

The Inspiration4 mission was inspiring in one sense: Humanity may indeed be on the cusp of going to space in significant numbers. As the science experiments and charity element of the flight suggest, there might even be a well of citizens out there who want to go to space for more than the view of Earth or to say they were among the first. We could be on the verge of becoming an extraterrestrial society, and that’s inspiring.

I also see reason for concern, though. This mission by SpaceX and those by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin were tightly controlled, insular affairs. The live feeds, the televised after-parties, the softball coverage — they do not feel satisfying. I’m old enough to remember the latter years of the Apollo program and how the adults around me reacted to Walter Cronkite. He and the news gatherers supporting him had a knack for honoring the achievements of the space pioneers while still covering them with a newsperson’s eyes. History tells us that when Cronkite took off his glasses and went speechless after the Eagle landed, his silence said volumes.

The billionaires of spaceflight are probably confident they have the right communications strategy for the times: Go directly to the audience with carefully orchestrated live feeds and tweets like “All is well,” or “Definitely upgraded toilets.” Then let these tidbits bounce around the echo chamber.

This closed approach will work for a while, but it’s uninspiring for someone who’s curious about technology and wonders where humanity is headed. Why is that a problem? Because those are the very people who must drive this market forward. The free market will need to correct itself toward more transparency if commercial spaceflight is to become more than a novelty. Wise companies will be on the right side of that correction when it comes. A new tier of consumers will demand trustworthy information from independent sources about such things as safety and the quality of the experience.

Something like this transformation began in the U.S. air transportation industry after the federal government lifted controls over airfares and routes in 1978. Deregulation was applauded by scholars and business executives, but consumers soon grew frustrated at cancellations and overbookings without warning: “An enemy of a competitive free market is lack of information or inaccurate information,” said then Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., in 1987, as he advocated consumer protections for air travelers.

A similar reckoning will come for the spaceflight industry, and when it does, that will be good news. The market will at last be real, and it will be led by knowledgeable consumers.

The light and dark side of Inspiration4