Jul 22, 2019

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,125 words, a 5-minute read.

What else should we write about this summer? Hit reply to this email or message me at steve@axios.com, Kaveh Waddell at kaveh@axios.com and Erica Pandey at erica@axios.com.

Okay, let's start with ...

1 big thing: The road to Titan

Titan orbiting Saturn, taken from Cassini. Photo: Universal/Getty

President Trump has set his sights on the Moon. Elon Musk's are on Mars. But some of the edgier talk urges an even bolder national aim — a human mission to Titan, Saturn's largest moon.

A mania broke out in the U.S. last week over the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, and returning to the Moon by 2024 and possibly Mars in the 2030s. But if the aim is an awe-inspiring mission leading to the colonization of space, neither may be the best practical answer.

  • Instead, in the same gap of time that's passed between Apollo 11 and now, the U.S. could plan and execute a three-year, 745-million-mile journey to Titan, which is replete with the right colony-sustaining resources, experts tell Axios.
  • That means a landing date of 2069.
  • The European Space Agency landed a probe called Huygens on Titan in 2005, and NASA is already planning to send a drone there in 2026.

"Titan should be the keystone for human settlement of the outer solar system, as it has all the materials needed to support life and technological civilization," said Robert Zubrin, a prominent aerospace engineer and space evangelist.

The big picture: Once NASA completed a few moon landings, political and popular support for more ambitious projects dried up. Now that backing for big spending has returned, amid a space race among nations and private companies, it's worth scrutinizing just what constitutes a new moonshot.

  • The first thing to know is that the Moon has no concrete strategic value: "For the next 20 or 30 years the Moon is just a geopolitical status symbol," Nicholas Wright, a U.K.-based analyst, tells Axios.
  • In terms of something big, Mars is a far stretchier goal: NASA plans to send humans to the planet in the early 2030s, and SpaceX is talking about putting a crew in Mars orbit by 2024, though experts are highly skeptical.
  • Still, if you are talking long-term human habitation, both of those are just stepping stones, says Amanda Hendrix, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute.

"Neither the Moon nor Mars are ideal for long-term human stays," she said. Titan is "a more sustainable destination."

Not everyone thinks a moonshot to Titan is a great idea: Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist, tells Axios' Alison Snyder that he is "not a fan of destination space programs." In an email, he said:

"What would serve multiple interests more reliably and stably in the long run is to create the capacity for robots and people to access space at all levels. Let the needs of the demographic and moment specify what the destination happens to be. Scientists search for life on Mars. Entrepreneurs mine asteroids. Tour companies book trips to orbit and to visit the lunar base, etc. Only then can a space program morph to become a space industry."

In addition, life on Titan would be hard — it's cold (about -290° F) and its atmosphere contains methane, propylene and poisonous hydrogen cyanide, not to mention nitrogen and carbon.

But if you believe that humans respond to specific, difficult-to-reach targets, there is a case for naming Titan as the best next big goal. One main reason is that, unlike the Moon or Mars, astronauts would not have to take everything along to sustain their existence.

  • There is a 3,900-mile-long belt of water ice on the Titan surface.
  • Its hydrocarbon reserves are hundreds of times greater than the Earth's, providing a source of fuel.
  • And the thick atmosphere eliminates radiation as a problem, unlike the Moon and Mars. Its atmospheric pressure is reasonably close to the Earth's, making it easier to engineer the spacecraft and the structure in which humans will live and work.

If you are thinking genuinely long term, there is also the matter of Saturn's reserves of helium-3 — the largest in the solar system, says Zubrin.

  • "Helium-3 is the ideal fuel for fusion reactors and fusion rockets, making available nearly infinite energy for an expanding civilization and enabling spacecraft with the ability to achieve our next moonshot after Titan — the reach for the stars."

Go deeper: A special report on Earth's nearest neighbor

2. The coming corporate wipeout

The American Motors AMX, 1966. Photo: Pat Brollier, Darryl Norenberg/Enthusiast Network/Getty

Just 60 of the Fortune 500 of 1955 remain in the hallowed group. The rest (like American Motors, above, subsumed by Chrysler in 1987) have been largely the victims of changing times, tough competition or their own missteps.

What's happening: Tom Siebel, founder of C3.ai, an artificial intelligence firm that serves big corporations and the Army, says that this is an existential moment for current Fortune 500 companies that don't move quickly to adapt to the new age of AI and robotics.

"We are in a mass extinction event," says Siebel, who stopped by the office last week to talk about his new book, "Digital Transformation."

Westinghouse, Sears, and Toys "R" Us are among the slain former giants, Siebel notes. "You have companies with new DNA filling the voids in the ecosystem. You have Amazon rolling everyone. If you are Walmart, you are looking down that barrel of a gun. You are in a world of hurt," he said.

Siebel is describing one of the current megatrends:

  • Last month, we reported that the day of the conglomerate is over: From globe-spanning companies, they are being forced by political and economic circumstance into regional operations.
  • The FT's Rana Faroohar says companies are adapting to "the age of deglobalization."

"It's either you're on the train or you're on the track," says Siebel.

3. China's U.S. withdrawal

Beijing, November 2017. Photo: Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty

Two years into the brinkmanship between the U.S. and Beijing, Chinese investment in the United States has plunged, writes the NYT's Alan Rappeport.

  • Last year, Chinese investment fell to $5.4 billion in the U.S., plummeting from $46.5 billion in 2016, the NYT reported, citing the Rhodium Group.
4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The dangerous future of war in space (The Economist)

Carmakers are putting electrics before driverless cars (Joann Muller - Axios)

What Arthur C. Clarke forecast 50 years ago about today (Rebecca Jones - Car and Driver)

The flying ants of Britain (Meilan Solly - Smithsonian)

The booming business of spying (Bill Priestap - NYT)

1 relief thing: Why cosmonauts pee on a tire

U.S. astronaut Kate Rubins, 2016. Photo: Dmitry Lovetsky/AFP/Getty

One of the great unsolved problems of spaceflight is how to pee in zero gravity, Kaveh writes.

For decades, astronauts have been subjected to bags, valves, suction fans, "sheaths" and high-tech diapers — a history painstakingly chronicled in a blockbuster Twitter thread from novelist Mary Robinette Kowal.

  • She is responding to the claim that women were long held back from going to space because there was no good way for them to pee once they got there.
  • "We didn't have the technology for men to pee in space when they started, either," Kowal writes.
  • When women were finally sent to space, Kowal says, NASA developed a diaper to deal with the pee problem — officially, the Maximum Absorbency Garment (MAG) — and men switched to it, too.

Fun fact: It took so long to suit up Russian astronaut Yuri Gargarin, the first human in space, that he had to pee before takeoff.

  • He went on the tire of the truck carrying him to the launch site, Kowal writes, launching an enduring tradition.
  • "Every astronaut to launch from Baikonur since has done the same. Women squat or carry a vial of pee."

Go deeper: Space was designed by men, for men (Mary Robinette Kowal - NYT)

Bryan Walsh

Thanks for reading!