Weekly Brief: Space Dreaming Eases Woes of the World

The future of transportation went extraterrestrial last week as SpaceX launched two American astronauts into outer space.

The astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, are the first astronauts to catch a ride on an American rocket ship in nine years, since NASA ended its Space Shuttle Program in 2011. A lot has changed since then. In place of a federally backed program, SpaceX is a private aerospace manufacturer founded by billionaire renegade and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. His vision for SpaceX is larger than shuttling astronauts back and forth from the International Space Station. He wants space travel to become the next commercial sensation, akin to Mount Everest, with millionaires and billionaires booking flights to the moon and beyond.

For a world beleaguered by a pandemic and a country rocked by a week of unrest following the tragic death of George Floyd, there was something nice about taking two minutes to watch what mankind is capable of when we are at our most inspired and collaborative. If we can figure out how to fire a capsule into outer space, and harness autonomous technology so that it can steer itself to the International Space Station, surely we can overcome this pandemic. Surely we can root out racism and racial injustice that is so pervasive that it suffocates people of color, yet so prevalent that many white Americans can persuade themselves that it doesn’t exist. We can do better. SpaceX is proof of that.

It’s also a reminder that Elon Musk, for all his shenanigans and controversy, is a force hell-bent on reimagining transportation as significantly as Henry Ford did a century ago. In place of gas guzzlers and distracted drivers, he sees self-driving electric vehicles powered by the sun. In place of impenetrable abyss, he sees a new era of commercial space flight. Both might sound fanciful but Tesla is close to realizing the first and now SpaceX is within sniffing distance of the second. Musk has already sold tickets for a trip around the moon to Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. If the current SpaceX trip is a success, Musk will have the green light to make space tourism the future normality.

In other news last week, Waymo set June 8 as its target date for resuming driverless operations in the San Francisco Bay Area. The company says that its autonomous minivans are gearing up for re-launch, although in place of human passengers, the minivans will provide free deliveries for community partners to help provide COVID-19 relief and support. It’s anyone’s guess as to what transportation will look like in a post-pandemic world. The demand for self-driving consumer transportation could wane as the desire for so-called “contactless” deliveries soar. Clearly that’s not lost on Waymo.

Nor is it lost on Amazon. The e-commerce giant is reportedly close to finalizing a deal to purchase self-driving start-up Zoox. Pre-pandemic, Zoox dreamed of becoming a fully autonomous, all-electric, ride-hailing giant. Now it appears destined to become the technological underpinning behind Amazon’s autonomous delivery fleet.

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