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Science fiction gets real in the billionaire space race

The state of commercial space travel is changing so quickly that even science-fiction authors are struggling to keep up.

That’s what Time magazine’s editor at large, Jeffrey Kluger, found out when he was finishing up his newly published novel, “Holdout,” half of which is set on the International Space Station.

Kluger’s plot depends on the Russians being the only ones capable of bringing an astronaut back from the space station — but that no longer holds true, now that SpaceX is flying crews to and from orbit.

“At the very end of the editing process, SpaceX started to fly … so I had to quickly account for that,” he explains in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and technology with fiction and popular culture.

Kluger filled that plot hole by writing in a quick reference to a couple of fictional companies — CelestiX and Arcadia — and saying they were both grounded, due to a launch-pad accident and a labor strike.

It’s been even harder to keep up in the past few weeks, due to the high-profile suborbital spaceflights that have been taken by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. Each of them flew aboard their own company’s rocket ship: Blue Origin’s New Shepard for Bezos, and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane for Branson.

Kluger told me those billionaire space trips are at the same time less significant and more significant than they might seem at first glance.

They’re less significant because “this is a very elite group of very wealthy and powerful people who are in a unique position to build and fly their own spacecraft,” Kluger said.

“That is hardly something that the great mass of the rest of us are in a position to do,” he added.

But Kluger said these first flights also hint at the “enormous growth potential” for private-sector spaceflight.

“One of the points we like to make when we talk about this at Time is that Charles Lindbergh flew across the ocean by himself in 1927,” he said. “And just 12 years later, we had Pan Am trans-Atlantic service. … In very short order, we have the democratization of air travel.”

Which billionaire will win the lion’s share of the suborbital space travel market? If it’s a two-billionaire race, Kluger would put his money on Blue Origin, because its vertical launch-and-landing system is less complicated than Virgin Galactic’s air-launch system. But Kluger noted that rival billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX has far outpaced both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.

Jeffrey Kluger
Jeffrey Kluger (Via Twitter)

“They’ve stayed suborbital,” he said. “And until I see them going orbital and achieving some of the kinds of things that SpaceX is achieving, I think they are pretty much eating SpaceX’s dust at the moment — and SpaceX is, in turn, eating their lunch.”

SpaceX is due to mark a milestone of its own in the months ahead when it launches an “all-civilian” orbital mission. The Inspiration4 mission, funded by billionaire Jared Isaacman as a charity project for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, is shaping up as the first crewed orbital mission that doesn’t have a government employee on board. Isaacman himself, who’s the CEO of Shift4 Payments as well as a trained jet pilot, will be the mission commander.

“We don’t know exactly what all of the seats cost, but going by what the market bears for orbital seats, probably a good guesswork figure is $50 million a seat,” Kluger said. “So to put four people aboard the Inspiration4 mission is $200 million, I would guess.”

The four-person crew aims to conduct zero-G science experiments and teach lessons from orbit over the course of three days. “So the mission as a whole is longer, more ambitious and more selfless than the other two missions,” Kluger said.

Inspiration4 won’t be heading for the space station. But yet another commercial space mission, organized by Axiom Space with SpaceX in charge of the launch, will carry three customers and an Axiom mission commander to the 20-year-old orbital outpost early next year. Still more customers — including Tom Cruise and the winner of a reality-TV show — are expected to visit the station in the years ahead.

“Life aboard the space station is going to become a little bit more crowded, and a little bit more versatile,” Kluger said.

Let’s just hope those visitors don’t face the kinds of troubles that the protagonist of Kluger’s novel has to deal with. The central character in “Holdout,” an astronaut named Walli Beckwith, encounters perils including an in-space collision, an ammonia leak and a balky Soyuz capsule — all based on true-to-life space station incidents.

Holdout book cover
Jeffrey Kluger’s “Holdout” blends action in space and in the Amazon. (Dutton Books)

Kluger said he was careful to stay within the bounds of the space station’s technological capabilities and potential shortcomings as he was writing “Holdout.”

“Some of the politics in Washington, I may have taken a few liberties with that … but when it came to the science, I tried to keep it as close to the actual physics of spaceflight as possible,” he said.

In addition to the space drama, the ingredients in Kluger’s book include international political intrigue as well as environmental threats and a refugee crisis in the Amazon. (No, Jeff Bezos, not your Amazon.) It all sounds like the perfect recipe for a movie script.

“I think almost hourly of this book being on screen,” Kluger admitted. “I’m not saying I wrote it more as a screenplay than as a book, but I did write it with the idea of a movie in mind. My agent in Hollywood at William Morris is working on getting it out there.”

Kluger already has someone in mind to play Walli Beckwith: Elisabeth Moss, who has starred in “Mad Men” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

“I think she’s got the grit. I think she’s got the toughness. I think she’s got the emotional availability and accessibility,” Kluger said. “I just think she would be the perfect person for Walli Beckwith.”

Elisabeth Moss hasn’t yet shown up alongside Tom Hanks and Lady Gaga on the list of prospective suborbital spacefliers. But in light of Kluger’s interest, maybe she should think about it.

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

As long as we’re on the subject of strong female characters, Kruger says he’s spending a lot of his free time watching “For All Mankind,” the Apple TV+ alternate-reality series that speculates on what might have happened if the Soviets landed on the moon first and forced NASA to bring women into the Apollo program’s astronaut corps.

In the fictional series, both the Americans and the Soviets are quick to set up moon bases — and the way Kruger sees it, this may be turn out to be a case of life imitating art, with a decades-long time delay.

“I do think that lunar habitation in the next five to 20 years is a very real possibility,” he said. “And that’s the first time I would have said that in a long time.”

The Calculating Stars
“The Calculating Stars” is the first novel in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut trilogy. (Tor Books)

For another take on Apollo-era alternate history, check out Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut sci-fi trilogy. We already recommended her novels in conjunction with the Apollo 11 golden anniversary in 2019, but the recommendation is worth repeating in the context of the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. The CLUB Club highlights books with cosmic themes that have been in print long enough to show up at your local library or secondhand shop.

If you’re looking for an alternate CLUB Club selection, you can take a cue from Kruger’s reading list: “Big Vape: The Incendiary Rise of Juul,”  by Jamie Ducharme, one of Kruger’s colleagues at Time. “It’s a terrific exposé of the rise and fall of the company,” Kruger said.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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