Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S2. EPISODE 13
The New Space Race
Featuring Ché Bolden
Will space travel and exploration be left to the ‘billionaire boys club’? Executive Director of the Inter Astra group and 26-year Marine Corps veteran Ché Bolden shares with us his views on the future of space.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network. And I am joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And we are having these conversations with illuminating individuals about illuminating topics, about where we are in the present and where we’re gonna go in the future, and as always, where we’ve been in the past.
And one aspect of the 20th century that was really front and central for, I don’t know, 20, 30 years, was the Space Race, and the moon shots, the mission to Mars, the competition between the Soviet Union and the United States about who was gonna land first, and whose flag was going to end up on our one major satellite as a way of saying our system is better. But it also animated generations of hope and optimism about the endless, boundless potential of humanity and this new frontier that we were going to explore and see. And that kind of went in abeyance a bit, partly because of the Challenger disaster in the 1980s, partly because attention went elsewhere.
And in the past few years, we have had a renewed set of attention for a somewhat different set of reasons, which has been the efforts of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson—and what has been called and what we will refer to, I think, in this conversation as the Billionaire Boys Club—sending themselves into space, spending a lot of their own money to check out what’s beyond the event horizon. But there’s a whole world there of spending and exploration and competition and the possibilities and the scientific possibilities that most of us don’t really think about much, but which animates governments and agencies and individuals both in the military and in the private sector to spend years of time and many billions of dollars. And it is indeed the final frontier, or at least it’s a final frontier that is increasingly becoming part of a global conversation about, where does humanity go next? Where does collective governance go next? Where does exploration go next?
And so we’re gonna have a conversation today with someone who is literally at the forefront of this, Ché Bolden, who is a career military [veteran] and has now started a group, which Emma will talk about, that is dedicated to becoming what he calls the collective platform for space business and space exploration and space governance. And I think it’s an area that most of us, except for a moment of headline, don’t think about but is a vital aspect of where human beings are putting their future attention, and at best, putting their hopes for future progress. So tell us about Ché, Emma.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Ché Bolden, as you mentioned, is the executive director of the Inter Astra group. We’re gonna be talking to him about his work there today. He’s also the president and CEO of The Charles F. Bolden Group, which is an executive leadership firm established for the global advancement of science and security. He’s a 26-year Marine Corps veteran. He has extensive experience in aerospace, political military and international affairs, critical infrastructure, and a whole lot more. Ché was also a Federal Executive Fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he was immersed in cutting-edge policy discussions around ethical AI, digital transformation, human-machine collaboration, and a lot more.
ZK: So let’s talk to Ché.
EV: All right.
ZK: So, Ché Bolden, you’ve had a fascinating career, fascinating background, family life. I wanna get into some of how you became Ché, but let’s start with this venture that you are launching—launching is probably the apropos word. We all, of a certain generation, grew up in Star Trek land, of “space: the final frontier.” And you are now launching us into that final frontier. We’re gonna have to find a way not to keep using that word.
Ché Bolden (CB): [Laugh.] The clichés are good. Everybody loves clichés, so…
ZK: I know, someone should definitely do the “in defense” of clichés. They’re kind of ways to embed genuine wisdom and cloak them behind a scrim of dismissiveness. But that’s for another conversation.
So tell us about why you’re doing what you’re doing. I mean, there’s a family background there. There’s a personal passion. I was struck by you launching your space venture because, you know, for those of us who are not immersed in that world, it feels other, separate, alien—other than a few high-profile billionaires thrusting themselves into the ether. So how did this happen?
CB: I think your last statement is probably where we start. I did grow up in the shadow of shuttle. My father was a US astronaut and went to space four times. And so, I am not unfamiliar with space and space exploration. It was never anything that was deeply rooted into me, however. Because I always envisioned that it was for superheroes. And so, some of the events that have happened of late, as we’ve seen fairly ordinary people, if you wanna qualify, you know, a billionaire as an ordinary person, the things that they’ve been able to do with their capital, and the opportunities they’ve been able to create with their capital, kind of pushed me towards this idea that space needed to be something more than what it is.
And so, my company, the Charles F. Bolden Group, which focuses on leadership for the global advancement of science and security, we were trying to figure out how best to position ourselves to add value to the world. And the inherent knowledge that we have of the traditional space enterprise, and then frankly, the innovative spirit and the creativity of all the people that we’ve got involved with us, led me to decide, not quite unilaterally, but almost unilaterally, that we needed to focus our efforts on creating better opportunities in space.
As the commercialization of space picks up, and private space launch starts to bring the cost down, what we haven’t seen yet is more and more people get involved in space. And part of that is due to just a really poor narrative. The last time the world—forget about just the United States—the last time the world heard about space and was truly inspired to go to space was John F. Kennedy. So we’re talking about, you know, 60 years ago when we were actually motivated to pay attention to space. And as someone taught me—and we could talk about the gathering that kind of led us here right now—but someone who was at this gathering with us made the point that space is around us all the time. Day, night, it doesn’t matter—no matter where you are on the planet, space is ubiquitous in our existence. And for common people, there needs to be more to it than that. It can’t be something that they just look up to and use their imagination to think about the possibilities. We have the technology. You know, I grew up on the Sixty Million Dollar Man, so I almost can go down that cliché right there. But, you know, we do have the ability, from a capital perspective, from an intellectual perspective, from a technological perspective, and even from a motivational perspective We have the ability to do more with space. And I think that it’s kind of a mandate for us because we’ve been privileged enough to be given the expertise and the experience to expose more people to it, to guide the conversation, and to create more equitable opportunity for people.
So that’s how we got into it. And we formed what is called Inter Astra. And we chose the Latin term for a double meaning. You know, it literally means among the stars. And so we’re talking about bringing the stars down to humanity more, but then the people that we want to get more involved and give a greater voice to, we consider stars as well, and bringing them together. So that was kind of how we got motivated for this. The hard part now is making it go, giving it the fuel so that it can lift off. Like what I did there?
EV: [Laugh.] That was great. It was perfect. 10 out of 10.
So Ché, I was gonna ask you to expand a little bit upon, you know, what we could be doing more of, the exciting things that are going on in space. Zachary and I had another conversation with another Progress Network member a few weeks back, and we touched on space. And Zachary was very excited about it. And I was kind of like, “Mmm, I don’t know.” And I was sort of unpersuaded at the end of the conversation. And since then, I’ve done a little bit more research. I’ve understood what’s going on beyond like Bezos and other billionaires thrusting themselves into space. So I would love to hear from someone who’s actually in this field, like, what are the exciting things that are happening? What are the possibilities that we could be reaching?
CB: Yeah, I mean, the first thing I always have to make sure people understand is, I have to qualify that I’m an observer, like everybody. I’ve never been to space. I’m not an engineer. I’m not an astronaut. But the opportunities that space is offering for a lot of people… We have to kind of qualify, up until fairly recently space was a very closed industry. It was institutional. It was led by major nation states with a lot of capital. And they formed organizations like NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration; ESA, the European Space Agency; JAXA and Roscosmos for the Japanese and the Russians. Those were typically the only people that were in the game, and they did very traditional things. And those traditional things include launching IE rockets, putting up satellites, human space flight, and multi-planetary exploration.
But as we look at it, and as we start to analyze a little bit more, there’s so much more. Space is just another environment. It’s just like way, way back, we used to look at the high seas and people tried to figure out how to monetize that and how to make it work for humanity. The same thing applies to space now. So we’re looking at it through a slightly different lens, and the opportunities exist in things like agriculture, education, investment, insurance, entertainment, the arts, sports—I mean, you name it. Everything we do here on terra firma is eventually gonna be something that we have to consider once we leave Earth’s atmosphere. And I actually have to say, because we started becoming partnered up with another organization, space and space exploration is not strictly limited to out of atmosphere. I have been educated recently that it is below the ocean’s surface as well, considering we’ve only explored less than 5% of the ocean. So I think if we start to think of both of those two environments or domains in kind of the same context, then we’ll find that there’s a lot more opportunity out there to kind of grow, not just, you know, human knowledge, but human opportunities, value. You know, we are in a capitalist society. There is a lot of value to be created in space exploration. And those are the types of things I think that have excited me, and I hope they’re gonna start to excite more people.
And, you know, it’s obvious to those of you who are actually watching this—you can see that I am a man of color. There’s not a whole lot of people that look like me. There’s not a whole lot of people, Emma, that look like you that are involved in space. And so we obviously want to create more equitable opportunity for people to get involved because it is something that benefits all humanity, not just a very, very small subsection of it. When you look at the really rich guys who are doing this, it’s very easy to criticize them and say that it’s a billionaire boys club, but the reality of it is they’re doing a service to humanity that’s been done before. There’s precedent for it.
If we go way back, you know, most of us in the United States studied American history. As biased as it is, it still has some relevance. Isabella and Ferdinand, they used their wealth and their narcissism to send explorers around the world. And that benefited us because trade opened up, and that changed humanity irreversibly. In the 20th century, we had Howard Hughes and Hughes Aerospace Corporation, which advanced air travel, which now we can… Today’s not a great example because we don’t have $99 airfares right now, but at some point, hopefully we get back to having cheap airfares. That would’ve never happened without the billionaire Howard Hughes going out and spending ridiculous amounts of money on his pet projects. So when you look at the guys like Musk, Branson Bezos, Isaacson, it appears to people they’re doing it for their own selfish purposes. Each one of them actually has a very noble reason for doing what they’re doing. And I’m not gonna try to explain it for you, but they do have them. And we’ve just gotta work with those reasons as opposed to the reasons that a lot of people are telling you that they’re going and doing it for.
ZK: So for those who think about space exploration through the lens of what we and others have termed the Billionaire Boys Club, somewhat dismissively—actually, completely dismissively—there’s always been this pushback of, we have so many terrestrial problems that require money, attention, and effort, that we fail to address adequately. So what’s with the billions and tens of billions and hundreds of billions that go into significant space, Moon, Mars landings, telescopes, you name it? And during the Cold War, during the sixties, this period that is looked at retrospectively as this kind of glorious moment of literally reaching for the stars, a lot of the justification of that for both the Soviet Union and the United States was competition of, “Hey, if I can plant my flag on the moon, if I can send my crafts into orbit, I’m a better country than you. I’ve got a better system than you,” right? It wasn’t just noble exploration. It wasn’t the latter-day version of the South Pole, “Let’s just go find and see what we can find and see.” So how do you respond to that when people really do legitimately say, why are we wasting money, or utilizing resources that are finite, on whatever is out there, when we’re failing to do it for whatever is here?
CB: Yeah. You know, I have faith. I am a believer. I’m not a practicing practitioner of faith. However, I’m gonna pilfer—and I’ll probably botch it—the old saying of, you know, give man a fish, feed a man today, teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime. It’s the same principle in that regard. Whenever someone says, “Bezos just spent umpteen billion dollars on his vanity flight. That would’ve erased poverty in the United States.” Well, you could put that money against the problem right now, but you haven’t addressed the underlying issues that cause that problem in the first place. So it’s almost a pyrrhic victory in that regard. Sure, you’re gonna put some food in somebody’s belly for a very short amount of time. But guess what? A week or two from now, they’re gonna be right back where they were.
The money that’s being spent on exploration, space exploration in particular, has a tremendous knock-on effect. And I’ll use one example, I won’t use the name of the company, but there’s a company that does—there’s several companies out there that do it—but we’re involved with one company in particular that does cultivation of meat, or 3D manufacturing of meat. And so there’s lots of money expended in the exploration, experimentation, research and development associated with how do you print meat? And the knock-on effects to that… You know, it was done with the intent of solving for food issues on long-duration space flights, but the method and the techniques that they use, and the materials that they use, are really quite efficient by comparison to how we produce meat at present. They take enzymes and water and some other stuff that real scientists know how to describe, and they can actually manufacture a T-bone steak. At some point, they’ll get to a point where they can scale that and produce almost infinite amounts based on the number of enzymes they have and a certain amount of water. But the other side of this is, through that exploration and the expenditure of capital to get there, we’re gonna save billions of dollars. And on top of that, you now reduce the amount of land that you have to use to have cattle. You don’t have to feed them. You don’t have to use all the water. And, as my sister-in-law will point out, the methane that cows produce is one of the major causes of climate change. So if you can eliminate all of those things, that has a grander effect on society than if they had taken their billions of dollars and just, you know bought all the food kitchens and given them supplies for a week or two weeks or three weeks, because that’s just a temporary fix.
Science is allowing us the ability to fix problems in perpetuity, as opposed to simply just making people feel better in the moment. So if someone comes and wants to argue with me about how the money could be better spent elsewhere, I would ask them to tell me how long that is gonna solve the problem. And does that actually address the underlying conditions that cause the problem in the first place. Space is not the answer for all of it. The exploration related to space isn’t the answer for all of it. But it gets us a pretty good way to solving a lot of the problems that are plaguing us right now.
EV: I think part of the problem here—I had this problem not too long ago—is that I didn’t really understand the connection between the developments that are going on in space and life here on Earth. The Ukraine war is a great example, when you started to see satellite internet being given to Ukraine, which meant that they could keep operations up through this invasion. But I’m wondering where the communication gap is happening. Because like you were saying before, the space conversation kind of seems to have dropped out of the national conversation, before the last few years of the Billionaire Boys Club. So how do you see that?
CB: Yeah. So, I’m gonna do a little bit of a plug. The four main things that we took away from this event that we did—it was a salon-style retreat where we had people come together to talk about things off the record with the intent of finding areas that we needed to focus on to increase our ability to create equitable opportunity for more people. And those four areas that we discovered were the areas of governance education, access, and narrative needed to be worked through. And those were not things that we put in place intentionally. We didn’t focus conversations on them. They occurred naturally through the course of our discussions. And narrative, to your point, Emma—how to tell a story is really, really important. Zachary is a professional storyteller. You are a professional storyteller. That’s not a common trait for people. And so in order to invoke the emotions that are required for people to feel the need to do something, we’ve gotta tell the story so much better. And maybe this would come out in some other ways.
So I mentioned my father was an astronaut. He was also the administrator of NASA. And you know, I don’t wanna put words in his mouth, but we’ve had conversations that NASA’s not the best PR firm out there. So people don’t understand all of the really good things that have happened as a result of exploration, experimentation, research and development that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has done over the years. NASA has underwritten a tremendous amount of exploration and research that has benefited all of humanity, not just United States. But we haven’t told that story well enough. I mean, I can look around the room I’m in or in my house or in my car, and I would say probably more than 50% of everything around us right now was done as a result of the space program and the things that we had to figure out in order to sustain human life outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. But until you can figure out how to tell that story better, it’s never gonna pick up steam and get real traction.
Two of my associatesPeter Singer and August Cole, are masterful storytellers. One of the reasons why we’re affiliated is because I know and I recognize that they have a skill set that we can learn from and that we can start to build on in order to tell that story better. Everything we do as human beings is about relationships and how we can communicate and relate to one another, and space is no different. We’ve gotta be able to relate that, not just in our language, but from an idiomatic perspective and from a nuance perspective. How do you translate space to speak to people in whatever language it is that they like to talk?
I’m a bit of a pulp fiction fan. The movie, yes, but also the rest of it. There’s a scene in the movie Contact where Doctor Arroway was in front of this huge congressional hearing. And I forget what Matt McConaughey’s character’s name was, but he’s this evangelical pastor. And he basically asked her if she believes in God. And her answer obviously is no because she’s an atheist. And his response when challenged is, you know, you’re gonna go and make contact with another species, being, or whatever. And if you don’t believe what the majority of the people on this planet believe, then how are you gonna represent us? And what that said to me is that there is a certain level of communication and narrative that we have to have that communicates to people in the language in which they understand. And that’s really important. I think that’s probably one of the things that has not translated well for space and space exploration is we haven’t made it relevant to everybody.
ZK: I love your phraseology of, it’s all about relationships. And that’s certainly been a leitmotif of a lot of conversations we’ve had, with Arthur Brooks, and with John Wood Jr. I mean, people who are in various ways engaged in that. And in many ways, I think there’s a lot about The Progress Network that is fundamentally embedded in that idea, right? That it’s a sensibility you start with as much as anything else. And if you don’t start from the right sensibility, everything that then follows is going to be either compromised or broken.
I wanna step back for a minute. And if you could, talk a little about your own background, right? Your father was NASA Administrator, you were career military, he was career military. For those of us who haven’t been in the military, right, there is a whole ecosystem of families, fathers to sons, mothers to daughters, families that are in that world, right, they’re in that career. And I’m just wondering, like, how you feel that shaped you, what your own kind of decision trees were within that, if there’s a certain inevitability of going into the family business, and how that has felt to you. Because I think that’s illuminating. You have a unique background, an unusual family—unusual by any stretch of the imagination. Unusual as African Americans, unusual as high achievers, you know, you name it, go down the list. I think probably your own kids are following in a similar, unusual pathway.
CB: I get that question a lot. I think about that a lot. When I was growing up, you know, I came from a middle class family. My entire family were educators before my parents. My parents were the first ones to kind of step out of the norm, or out of vast lane of what we were doing as far as the family was concerned. Both my mother’s parents and my father’s parents were educators. And so they laid a very strong foundation, both from an educational perspective and a service perspective.
My father decided to go the route of joining the military at a time where not many black folk did that, or if they did, it was because they were drafted. But he went to the Naval academy got commissioned as an officer in the United States Marine Corps. And that set my family on a path of adventure and opportunity. And through his skills—you know, he got selected to become a test pilot, then he got selected to become an astronaut—we then moved to Houston, Texas, and I was surrounded by all these larger than life individuals. At the time, it was predominantly men. There were a few women in the astronaut program. And so I grew up getting to see some of the best examples of selfless, genius extraordinary accomplishment, but an incredible sense of humility. And every time I had to think about what it looked like to be something worth emulating, it was all around me. And so, a lot of my own decisions that I made in my life almost were involuntary. It was the natural thing to do.
I had flirted around with going to a bunch of different schools. But in the end I ended up going to the United States Naval Academy, which followed in my father’s footsteps because he had gone there before. He was the first black midshipman to be elected the president of his class. So, you know, my father has established a very long history of accomplishment and achievement. It’s funny, because a lot of times people are like, “Oh, well, that’s a lot to live up to.” The thing that I can easily say without any hesitation is I didn’t have to live up to anything. My mom and dad were very, very good about encouraging my sister and I to live our own lives, to be our own people. And so I never felt any pressure whatsoever to live up to some false expectation that I may never have been able to achieve on my own. But I did choose to go to the United States Naval Academy. And I finished in the top 98% of my class. So that was fun. And then I got commissioned into the United States Marine Corps and became a Marine Corps aviator.
ZK: It’s always that 2% though, Ché.
CB: That’s true. Well, you know, that 2% comes into a whole different discussion [laugh.] Because if you’re at that 2%, then life is really, really uncomfortable for you.
EV: That’s such an immigrant dad comment, Zachary. Like, “You could do better. Why weren’t you in the 99%?” [Laugh.]
ZK: Yeah. You’re bringing shame on your family, man [laugh.]
CB: I know. I have to give credit where credit is due. I pilfered that from John McCain. He was in the top 95% of his class. And so I had to do one up from the late, great John McCain.
So the choices that I had in front of me seemed fairly obvious. And I’m not somebody who backs down from challenges. And so, if something was challenging, I decided to go and do it. And it wasn’t for the sake… I mean, I’d like to think it wasn’t for ego. But nonetheless, you know, somebody has to do certain things, and I was having fun, and I got to do some really cool stuff along the way. As I got olderI started to realize that I was given these opportunities for a reason. So what am I gonna start to do with them? My wife will tell you I’m a contrarian to a fault. I’m always pushing back on things. And that’s what I’ve done, you know, since I can remember but more since my professional life developed. I just started finding areas that were challenging and needed attention, and put my attentions against those. Different than what my father did. He no less tackled challenges, but he did it in a far more cooperative way with people. My way tends to either win a lot of really good support or gain a lot of really, really significant pushback.
ZK: Your story is more variegated and I think more unusual than many. And particularly this chapter that you’re now writing, which I am sure you would say, and you’ve certainly told me, you know, if your father hadn’t been a NASA administrator and that hadn’t been part of the DNA of your upbringing, that probably wouldn’t have been where your energies would’ve gone. But then again, you were not gonna stay static. You were not gonna stay still. You were not gonna just come to the terminus of your military career and play golf. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve been playing golf. I’m crappy, but I still do it.
CB: I’m equally as crappy. Yeah, it’s interesting, because every now and then you have to kind of take stock of your life. I had a really surreal experience years ago, and there used to be this really cheesy show on TV called Pensacola: Wings of Gold. And in that show—I think it was Pensacola: Wings of Gold—they had a black character, a black man who was an F-18 pilot, and a RECON Marine, and something else. I forget what else it was. And the really funny thing about it is that was me. You know, I was an F-18 WSO, a back seater, but I’d also done a tour with Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance. And so I was jumping out of airplanes. In my primary profession, that’s a bad thing. If you’re under a parachute in the day-to-day that I had to do, that was really, really bad. But here I was at a job where I was actually voluntarily living under a parachute for, you know, minutes at a time here. So that was a bit of a surreal moment for me because I’m like, all right, they just wrote a character that kind of mirrors the life I’ve chosen to live. I didn’t think it was something worth putting on the big screen. But some writer in Hollywood decided that they thought that was a good idea.
Now fast-forward to the life I’ve been privileged enough to lead. One of the things about me growing up the way I grew up is I don’t get starstruck because, A, I was surrounded by astronauts all the time. And by virtue of living in Houston in the eighties, it was a place where celebrities used to come because the Space Shuttle program was just so amazing. So I got to see a lot of really famous people. Some people with the egos that some very famous people have probably don’t like it when I’m around. Because I don’t really pay that much attention to them. You know, it’s like, oh, okay, they’re a normal person. But the life I get to live today, partly because of my personality, but also because of the opportunities I was given earlier, I get to see these really amazing things. And sometimes I have to step back and remind myself, “Wow, you really do have it really good.”
But then at the same time, I think about, especially as a black man in the United States of America, that that’s not normal for us. And a lot of the social news that’s happened over the last five years in particular has really been a rude awaken for me that I have to do more. My entire life, a lot of times I get seen as an exception rather than someone who’s done exceptional things or had exceptional opportunities. And that really kind of eats at me all the time. And I’ve started to talk about it more in public because it needs to be said. Just because Ché Bolden went to the United States Naval Academy, played football, ran track, became an officer in the military, flew F-18s, got to get to a really cool rank and do some really amazing things with amazing people, that doesn’t mean that I’m a one-off in that regard. It just means I was given the opportunity, and I took advantage of that opportunity. There are so many more who look like me, who are far better than me, that just didn’t get the opportunity. And so I now have to take the positions that I’ve been given and the privilege that I have to try and shine a light on the fact that we’re missing out on so many talented individuals that can make a difference in this world that look like me, or they look like you, Emma. I’ve got three daughters. My three daughters can change the world if given the opportunity. And that’s really kind of where we sit.
We’re at a time in human history—I won’t say it’s unprecedented because I’m sure it’s happened time and againbecause human beings tend to make the same mistakes a lot. But when you look on the news today—and unfortunately, the time we’re recording this is in the aftermath of the latest mass shooting, terrorist act—human beings, we’ve gotta start to open our minds a little bit more and recognize that there’s excellence and opportunity in some of the most innocuous places that we don’t think of. When you look at somebody and think they’re beneath you, first things first, check yourself. But secondly, find out what it is that motivates them and how you can pull them up to do something amazing. Because, you know, I’m trying to be as optimistic about the human race as I can, and the easiest place for me to do that is to just take a look at each individual and see what capability they have.
And back to your question earlier, Zachary, that’s probably just as much of a reason why Inter Astra exists now, is because I think that we have barely scratched the surface on our capabilities to explore space. And there is some kid sitting in Nairobi, Kenya, or in Quito, that we’ve never given the opportunity, because they’re not American, and we don’t think that things of significance come from emerging countries. I wanna change that. I think we can change that.
EV: So Ché, I’m wondering if you could connect the dots a little bit between the equitable opportunities piece that you just brought up now and what it was like for you in the military. Because the military’s a really interesting place, where the rank and file is super diverse, reflects the American public, and is very unusual, I guess, in that way. But then when you go up the ladder, it’s like Wonder Bread land, and it’s all male.
CB: Man, you guys have done your research. You really know how to push the buttons [laugh].
EV: [Laugh.] We had someone write an op-ed for us, actually, who was in the military a black man in the military, writing about how optimistic he felt about new conversations in the military about race. So that’s when I started to get a bit more knowledgeable.
CB: Yeah, the conversations are emerging, and they’re great. The opportunities haven’t really changed that much, and here’s the problem. An incredible thing just happened, like, literally just happened in the past week, week and a half. The President of the United States nominated a black Marine Corps general for his fourth star. That’ll be the first time that the United States Marine Corps—my service, part of my heart—will have someone who looks like me wear four stars. That’s great. My fear is that there are people out there who’ll think that that’s enough. And think, you know, “Hey, what do you have to complain about? Look, you’ve got one.” And that’s the way it’s always been. My father and I, we’re separated by 25 years in our professional careers. Yet, when he was one of one, 25 years later, I often was one of one myself. And so, equitable opportunity in a place where I grew up, it dictates a very large portion of my personality. And I can tell you, as an institution that I love, it is flawed, and it’s got a lot of work to do.
My company, we did a study last year to kind of look at an aspect of that. So, for a quick history lesson the United States Marine Corps services were integrated in the forties. The United States Marine Corps opened aviation to blacks in 1952, when Frank Peterson became the first black Marine aviator. He was the first black officer in the Marine Corps to get promoted to the rank of general in 1979. Part of that was natural because you can’t become a general until you’ve done all the other stuff. But from 1979 until today, the Marine Corps has only promoted two more black aviators to the rank of general. My father was the second in 1996. Brian Cavanaugh was the third in 2016. So each of them are separated by almost two decades. That’s a problem.
When you have an entire portion of the military that doesn’t seem to be equitable—and you’ll get people that will say, “Hey, we’re a performance-based organization. It’s obvious that people just didn’t perform.” That is BS. There is no exclusivity between performance and the diversity as represented by the fact that you have general officers that don’t all look the same. And the black aviator dilemma, if you will, is just an avatar for anybody who’s not a white male. If you look at the leadership across the military, it is disproportionately white and male. When you look at the enlisted ranks—Emma, to your point—rank and file, the people who do the real work of the military is a good representation of America.
And I can only speak to the Marine Corps because that’s the only one I really know, but even the senior leadership within the rank and file is a good representation of America. And in some respects, it’s disproportionate, because the enlisted ranks have figured out that leadership has no set form. And a large number of our senior enlisted leaders in the Marine Corps are people of color, are women so much so that it mismatches, in some regards. And that’s not a problem. I mean, especially if you consider, for all this time, at least in America, all of our leadership has been white and male, which was a mismatch. So it’s not a problem. Young Marines, they follow leadership. That is the same way across all of the military. So when we talk about what’s equitable from an opportunity perspective, there are things that need to be changed from a policy perspective, from a cultural perspective, so that anybody has the ability to rise to the rank of a senior leader in the military. And right now, the culture is not set up for it. And in some respects, the system is not set up for it. But that’s a whole different conversation.
So there’s a lot of work to be done. The example of Mike Langley now being a four-star, and then the other gentleman that I referred to, Brian Cavanaugh, is about to get his third star—that’s progress, but it’s not lasting until there’s a pipeline behind them that they can do it. And the pipeline is really, really scarce. When we did that studythe community I came from—so, fast jets—there were 580 pilots that flew jets in the Marine Corps. Three of them were black.
ZK: Well, I guess first the question is, what does one do about that institutionally, right? We’re clearly in a moment in time, and have been in this moment in time for seemingly a long time, where the conversation about the necessity of these changes and the acceptance of that necessity seems relatively widespread in the way people talk about, you know, where we are, where we need to go. But that connective tissue seems lacking, even with a climate where the conversation appears to be directionally what you would want it to be.
CB: Here in the United States, we have this sense of exceptionalism that has led us to believe that, if you’re good enough, then you’re going to achieve what you deserve. But that ignores the fact that a lot of the criteria that we set up is geared towards a very small demographic. But because we try to tell ourselves, from an altruistic perspective, that it’s all based on merit, we don’t recognize that even the things that we say are “meritable,” if that’s a word fall in a certain line.
So again, I can only speak to what I know. The way that the Marine Corps evaluates its officers—and its senior listed, for that matter—and the criteria that we put out there is an experience-based criteria. There’s no real hard metrics. So the officer fitness report in the United States Marine Corps asks every ranking officer, the person who’s ranking the people below them, to provide a qualitative evaluation of what they do. And so it’s based on their perspective. And we are all subject to the bias that we have from our experiences. And the term I’ve used a lot is “ducks pick ducks,” right? “This Person looks like me. And so I’m comfortable with that.” And that look is not an actual physical look. It could be a performance look or experience-based look. But one way or another, we associate with people who are like us. And that lends itself to us exhibiting bias towards that individual. And that’s the way that the officer system in the military works. The senior officers, because they’re senior and they’ve achieved things, they put merit into the way that they did it. And they’ll look to other people who did it the same way that they did it.
Now, when you talk about the equitable opportunity, back to Emma’s question earlier, a young black man or woman that comes into the military is likely not gonna have the same experiences as a young white man or a woman that comes in. And that has a direct impact on some of the things that we ask people to do when they first come into it. And I suspect it’s just like this in the corporate world. I’m learning that now. But I am a neophyte in the corporate world. But when someone new comes in, there are certain intrinsic things that they have that allow them to succeed right off the bat. And if they’re familiar with some of the things that are happening in that environment, then that makes it that much easier.
So in the case of the Marine Corps—again, the only reference I have—if you’re a good swimmer, and you’re good outdoors, then you’re already ahead of the game. Well, the way that the United States is set up, you know, through our history, there’s not a whole lot of black folk that swim a lot. Because in the inner city or in other places, pools are not a normal thing. It’s not because—and these are the things that I heard growing up—it’s not because my muscle density is so much more that I sink to the bottom of the pool. Or it’s not because my body fat content is this, that, or the other. It is literally a matter of exposure.
And the example I can use for that is my father. When he grew up in the segregated South, in Columbia, South Carolina his parents were very, very adamant about him learning how to swim. And there was a pool around the corner. And so my dad learned to swim from a very early age, and he was on the swim team all the way through. His swim team won the South Carolina state championship. Now, mind you, it was a segregated championship. But nonetheless, they were all very good swimmers.
And so, as I grew up, I was put in the same situation. I was on the dive team, but I learned how to swim from an early age, and I was in the water all the time. And so, when I got to the Naval Academy, swimming was not an issue for me. When I got to the Basic School, which is where every Marine officer goes, swimming was not an issue. When I got to flight school, swimming was not an issue. But at every single one of those places where I was asked to be evaluated on swimming, I was automatically put, before anybody even asked or knew, into the remedial section. When I was at flight school, all of the black students were pretty much automatically put into the remedial swim session. And I went along because I was gonna see, as an experiment, how it was gonna play out. We went, I don’t know, I forget the course of the instruction, but it was maybe three weeks long worth of swimming, and when we finally had to do the swim test, I was the second one out of the pool. The first person that beat me had been a collegiate swimmer. And probably not to my surprise, all of the instructors there were patting themselves on the back that they had taught me so well how to swim in a matter of three weeks. But the reality of it is, they had nothing to do with it. Same thing applied for my father. Going through as a test pilot and as an astronaut, there were always these times where people just assumed that he wasn’t a good swimmer. But that wasn’t the case.
But those are the things… When you have skills like that, that sets you up to succeed in an environment or an organization like the Marine Corps. If you don’t have those skills, you’re automatically behind. And the system is not set up right now to balance that out and give people an equal starting position in whatever organization. I would imagine the same thing applies for computer programming or trading on the stock exchange. If you don’t have certain things at the very beginning, then you’re never gonna be as good as the person who comes with more information
EV: Or like golfing, like you guys were talking about before, right? Like, that’s a huge problem with women coming into the corporate world.
EV: I don’t know anyone who was raised to know how to golf. Nobody. Nobody.
CB: Right. Yeah, exactly. It’s human nature. We tend to gravitate towards people who are more like us. That’s unavoidable. But the people who are doing things the best right now are the ones that recognize their bias and adjust for it, and make, whether it’s concessions or allotments or whatever, they know that they need to pay more attention to these characteristics that maybe somebody doesn’t have, but they can learn.
EV: So Ché, I was wondering—just to switch gears a little bit—you mentioned these four things that came out of the retreat or the meeting that Inter Astra had. Equitable opportunities, and you talked about the narrative, and you mentioned governance. And I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about the governance piece, because I don’t have a good concept of like—actually, I’m kind of just imagining space like the Wild West. You know, you have like a couple of countries or a handful of countries, and then some private companies. I mean, are there norms? Are there rules? Are there regulations?
CB: There are some norms, and there are some rules but they’re written by a very small group of individuals.
EV: The golfers [laugh].
[Laugh.] Yeah. The golfers and the vodka drinkers. Sorry, that’s a bad stereotype of Russians. But, you know, for the longest time, the United States and Russia wrote the rules of the road. The Chinese are envious of that. They want to be able to have a say in how space is conducted. But even more importantly, I think this was before Christmas, but the head of ESA kind of made, it wasn’t an offhand comment, it was very intentional, but he said something to the effect of, Elon Musk is writing policy for space exploration right now. One individual, because he has the means to do so, is dictating how we use space. Starlink, while it’s bringing a lot of capability to humanity, is rapidly taking up a lot of space, which sounds really counterintuitive because space is infinite. But guess what? There’s this layer around the Earth that we’ve gotta get through to get to the rest of space. And it is rapidly being populated by a bunch of stuff. You could call it space junk in some regards. In others, it’s just stuff.
So one of the very first areas that governance is really kind of rearing its head is, how do you regulate who puts what where, and for how long? I’ve heard this—I haven’t seen video or photographic proof—but I’m told that there is a visible ring around the Earth now. It doesn’t have a naturally occurring ring, like other planets in our solar system, but now it does have an artificial ring. And if you think about launching and getting things into orbit, whether it’s low Earth orbit, geosynchronous orbit, going into cislunar or even beyond, the risk of hitting something is getting higher and higher every day. And so there will have to be some rules as to who puts what into space at what time, where they put it and how long it stays there.
One of the areas that we talked about with governance was, how do you make it more accessible? In the United States, there’s a couple of organizations that oversee whether or not someone can launch something into low Earth orbit or beyond. And if you don’t comply with their rules, then you can’t do it. And unfortunately, a lot of those rules are onerous enough that it takes a lot of capital to navigate those rules. And so a startup launch company may not have the means and the knowledge to actually position themselves to be able to put something into orbit. And so when we talk about governance, there’s a lot more discussion that needs to happen and a lot more voices that need to be at the table in order to expose certain challenges or issues.
So when you talk about the governance piece, there just needs to be a better congress, if you will, that helps to set the path. And it can’t just be the United States, ESA, the Japanese, the Russians, and the Chinese. There’s an entire continent of 55 countries that has a say. There’s another continent below us here in North America that has a say. And then there’s Southeast Asia. The Indians have a tremendous interest in space, and they’re very capable in what they’re doing. They’ve done things on a much faster timeline than the United States did. But they haven’t had a voice at the table. And so, from a governance perspective, we just need to get a more representative set of voices that kind of help guide what we’re gonna do. You’ll often hear people say, “space is for all humanity.” But right now, our policies don’t necessarily support that. And the progress that we’re making in space exploration doesn’t support that. And so we gotta change that.
ZK: I have to say, as I’ve become more attuned to what’s going on in this realm, partly by just knowing you, I’ve been struck by the self-selectivity of people who are drawn to be in space as a life profession. Whether it’s scientists, engineers, pilots administrators, funders, entrepreneurs, there’s a very high quotient of dreamy optimism, of sort of forward-looking possibility. And like any set of human societies—I mean, you articulated it well, about the limitations of “ducks pick ducks,” and people gravitate towards the like, and diversity is a challenge, at every level, you know, intellectual, gender, race, cultural, tribal. But it does seem to me that there remains something about the exploration of space that attracts people who are drawn to the better angels of their nature and are kind of driven by a core optimism about the potential of humanity to solve problems and explore the unknown and move through whatever fears we have to something better. I mean, has that been your experience of it, or am I romanticizing?
CB: No, you’re accurate. I think it’s accurate. And I think it’s luck, frankly. I really do. If I say institutional space, that could be considered synonymous with national security. And so most of the people who’ve been involved in space and space exploration and the expenditure of capital to get there, the number one reason they’ve done it is for national security. A very close second was the pure curiosity of science and scientists. They just wanna know more about it.
I went and participated in a space conference in Africa, and we were very fortunate to have intimate interactions with several heads of agency there. And the unfortunate thing as it stands right now is most of those space agencies are part of their ministries of defense. And during the panel I spoke on, I kind of implored them, I said, “As soon as you possibly can, if it’s at all possible, you need to separate your space effort from your defense effort.” Mainly for two reasons. The number one reason is it makes it hard for private industry and commercial entities to do business with you. Because a lot of times they don’t wanna be affiliated with a capability that might help human beings do some really bad things. The second reason is that, by disaggregating any space endeavor from the context of national security from a military perspective, you open up the opportunity now to use space to look into the new space area, those areas we talked about earlier—agriculture, education, health.
There are so many things that we can learn through space and space exploration that will help humanity, but that can only be done if it’s disassociated with conflict or things like that. Space, up to this point, the voices that have prevailed have been those that have been science-based. I think largely because space is just so hard. It’s complicated. And the science behind it requires really, really thoughtful and intelligent people to do it. And those people, if you want to think that the human brain is limited, I think that their intellectual capacity to do really, really smart things outweighs any fear that would drive them to think of it in a kind of a defensive mentality.
But as we get more people involved, just be prepared that there will be more voices that wanna do not good things with space. And so, one of the prophylactics that we can use against that is to bring more people in that are looking at it for purposes that are good. And those people tend to be very optimistic. If you’re a pessimist and think that things aren’t gonna work, science really isn’t your thing. So I think it’s been a combination of luck and natural selection. Up until this point, at least, you couldn’t be involved in space unless your primary thought process was one oriented on one of discovery and exploration. But we may have run out of that now that it’s becoming more accessible. We’re gonna start to see a lot more different perspectives come in, and it may not be as dreamy or as visionary as what we’ve known in the past, Zachary. So, I hope that we keep the positive aspects of it at the forefront, but there is this distinct possibility, as more people start to pay attention to it and get involved, that bad actors will be there, and they’ll have some influence.
EV: Speaking of getting more people involved—I feel like I have to ask this question on behalf of like ordinary people everywhere who are just waiting to see if they can go on a space tour before they die [laugh]. Could this be possible before I die? Let’s say 50 years from now. Are we anywhere near there? Can we sign up for a space tour?
CB: Yeah. Yes. It’s not so much whether you can or can’t, it’s whether you can afford it. And right now, the answer is no, none of us can afford it. And I’m right there with you. I cannot afford it. I don’t anticipate being able to afford it anytime soon. However, this is, again, one of those positive impacts of the Billionaire Boys Club and their vanity flights. The more flights they do, the quicker the costs will come down. The more of their own internal research and development dollars they put against—because they’re business people first and foremost, and it doesn’t bode well for them to have a super expensive liability on their books. The faster they figure out how to bring the cost down, the sooner we’ll be able to do it. And I do believe that we’re on a positive trajectory for that to be the case. I actually don’t believe the predictions that some of the people who are in the industry say, because it’s very, very optimistic. But if our lifespan goes another 50 years, Emma, I’d say it’s 50-50 that we’ll be able to afford going to space.
Now, I’m not an insider from that perspective. I don’t know what Blue Origin’s books look like. I don’t know what SpaceX’s books look like. I don’t know what Axiom’s books look like. So all the different companies that are out there, I’m not aware of their R &D plan or their strategic plans, as far as how they’re gonna bring the cost down. I do know that’s an objective of theirs. The ride-sharing is probably the easiest way to do it. And so when you look at how SpaceX in particular has been able to help other companies deploy microsats, nanosats, satellites and the like for a much lower cost, that’s a pretty good indicator of what we can eventually get to with human space flight.
The challenge with human space flight is that you’ve got these pink squishy things that, if you destroy it, you can’t really remake another one. So there’s safety measures that they have to consider. And so that will inherently make the cost a little bit more exponential and harder to bring down. But the cost of launch for someone who wants to put a thing into space has already come way, way down, and it’s affordable. If you wanna launch a satellite that enhances The Progress Network’s reach, it’s affordable. But if you wanna send you up to do a podcast from space, we’re not quite there yet.
ZK: Well, Emma, I think that’s gonna be on our next meeting agenda.
EV: Going to space? [Laugh.].
ZK: Progress Network satellites into space will be our next thing.
ZK: Ché, it’s always a pleasure talking with you. But more to the point, what you’re embarked on is just a fascinating journey, which I’m gonna enjoy watching, maybe participating in, but definitely supporting. Because I get the point fully about, as space as a frontier becomes less of a frontier and more of a product of both national security energies and investment in economics, the whole warp and woof of humanity is gonna be on display, not just the golly gee wilikers or the Cold War Space Race mentality. But you’re gonna keep this spirit going, and the more we have a possibility here to solve some problems, make some things rightmove the needle. And I’m very pleased that you’re part of that discussion and part of that movement.
CB: Well, Emma, Zachary, I appreciate the opportunity. And I’ll put my last plug in there. The international platform, we intend for it to be the global public square for space and space economy. And the sooner we can get it up and running, the faster we can create more opportunity. And so if there are any funders that listen to this, please reach out. I’m in an active seed round right now. And being a career military guy, I have no clue how to raise funds. So take pity on me, and don’t beat me up too much. But thanks again for the opportunity to speak with you all. It’s been a lot of fun. Zachary, I knew you were a good conversationalist already anyway. Emma, you make it even better. So, it’s been great.
EV: Thank you, Ché.
ZK: Thanks, Ché.
ZK: So Emma, I thought when we were gonna have this discussion that there’d be a lot more delving into Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk and Branson. And we certainly talked about, as a reference point, the Billionaire Boys Club. But in many ways, I think what’s helpful is the recognition that while that group has drawn more attention to what’s going on in terms of the race for space that isn’t just about NASA, and isn’t just about the history of these things, it’s a far, far more complicated, variegated universe—haha—than simply paying attention to what a few billionaires are doing would suggest.
EV: Ah, the space puns are out of control this episode.
ZK: I know. It’s tough.
EV: It’s true. I mean, there’s a lot going on out there, to the narrative piece of what we were talking about, that I really think people don’t know about. I was reading about manufacturing things in space that you can’t manufacture on Earth, including pharmaceuticals, and lunar habitats. Even Google Maps. You need space for Google Maps. Like, that’s definitely improved our lives. So what the next iteration of that could be is exciting to think about.
ZK: And I was struck when I went to this gathering that Ché alluded to a few times, which had a few hundred people, by just how much is going on in that particular world that, unless you’re in it, you don’t really know about. But it does involve tens of billions, probably hundreds of billions of dollars when you add it up. I mean, this is not an insignificant corner of human endeavor. It’s just not one that we pay a lot of attention to absent those very high-publicized moments where Musk builds a bigger rocket or says we’re gonna go land on Mars. And just how many people are thinking through these issues, thinking through what laws should govern the commons of space. How should the Moon be governed? I mean, even though we are decades away from having meaningful presence on the Moon, let alone Mars, there’s already a lot of people sitting there scribbling down what the rules of engagement should be and how you should carve things up or how you should work together or how you should compete. And obviously until that’s a real thing, it’s gonna remain kind of a theoretical side note. But it is quite fascinating how many people are actually engaged in all this stuff.
EV: Yeah. And it’s kind of [laugh]… there’s a lot of people engaged and a lot of people unengaged, right? And the funny thing is, we talk a lot about how people really pay attention to the fear and the risk and all of this. And you’d think that you would have more attention on space because of the, like, tail risks of mucking around up there. I would imagine that some pretty bad stuff could happen and could go wrong.
ZK: Well, I’m sure the next time a satellite falls, and if it falls inhabited area, it will tragically draw the attention. And human beings often need the tragic to draw the attention. Let’s hope that there will be some more attention given before that happens, but I guess we’ll have to see, which we will.
So, Emma, thank you again for the conversation. Thank you all for listening to What Could Go Right? From The Progress Network. And check out our newsletter; it’s free. And we will keep having these conversations.
EV: Thank you, Zachary.
If you wanna find out more information about The Progress Network and What Could Go Right?, please visit our website at theprogressnetwork.org. And if you want something other than gloom and doom when you open your email in the morning, you can also sign up for our weekly newsletter. It’S a roundup of progress news from around the world, and that’s at theprogressnetwork.org/newsletter. And please, if you like the show, if you could tell a friend, share an episode, leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, that would help us out a ton. What Could Go Right? Is hosted by Zachary Karabell and Emma Varvaloucas. The show is produced by Andrew Steven and edited by Jordan Aaron. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and the Podglomerate. Thank you so much for listening.
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