May 27 • 29M

Artificial Intelligence Takes a Flight to Space w/ Ashlee Vance, author of When the Heavens Went on Sale

A tiny satellite controlled by artificial intelligence gets a ticket to space. It's time to make travel plans! Talking with Ashlee Vance, author of When the Heavens Went on Sale

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The Cosmic Companion
Astronomy, space, and science news and education delivered in a fun, friendly format! Short form Astronomy Minutes and full-length episodes featuring interviews with some of the top scientists, authors, and developers around the globe!
Episode details
Ashlee Vance talks to James Maynard, in front of a background showing a satellite in space.

Hello everyone!

This week on The Cosmic Companion, Artificial Intelligence Takes a Flight to Space, talking with Ashlee Vance, author of When the Heavens Went on Sale

Ashley Vance appears on The Cosmic Companion 27 May 2023. Creative Commons 4.0 Attribution 2023 The Cosmic Companion

CHIEF DISORDER: Join me, citizen. We are headed to a secret rocket base. Wait. You need to be blindfolded. You can’t know where we are going. ‘Scuse me.



transportation sounds. 



CHIEF DISORDER: Welcome to Area Square Root of 2601! 

For the first time ever, a satellite launch to space will be entirely controlled by artificial intelligence. It turns out that in addition to large language models and human feedback, our cadre of cartoon scientists found that generative AI also requires small human models. A buddy to talk with. Anyway, basically, that’s you. And this is Ziggy.

ZIGGY: Howdy human! I’m Ziggy the Zippy AI Satellite. They are sending me to space, and I have to choose how to get there. And I have you to help me pick a flight!

To select the perfect private space company to transport me to the great beyond, I embarked on an exhaustive quest for knowledge. I dove deep into the annals of space exploration, making up these punch cards… errr… notecards for you!

JM: Sure, Ziggy. I’m happy to help. SpaceX is as good of a place as any to start. Sure, their Falcon 1 rocket failed on its first three attempts to reach space. But the next two missions worked. Later, the more massive Falcon 9 rocket first launched, carrying out a series of successful missions, including bringing human beings to the International Space Station.

Now, SpaceX has dreams of bringing people to the Moon and Mars in the future, but they have, so far, only managed to bring people a small fraction of one percent of the way to our celestial neighbor. 

ZIGGY: The inaugural flight of their flagship rocket, Starship, was launched on 420. Four minutes after launch, a self-destruct sequence set the tumbling rocket falling apart like a badly-rolled joint.

JM: Ok. Next up is Blue Origin, led by Jeff Bezos. They’ve been making strides with their New Shepard rocket, aiming to make travel to space safe and commonplace. Like many developers, they strive to make their rockets as reusable as possible, reducing both waste and cost. 

Blue Origin has, so far, completed six crewed missions to the edge of space aboard their New Shepard rocket. And that… includes… William… Shatner. 

ZIGGY: I gotta admit, their commitment to reusable technology and a gradual approach to development has its charm. 

But, their last flight (one without humans on-board), ended prematurely after a booster engine failure.

Plus, will their rockets head to the stars or stay at suborbital hops? I’m an AI here. I just gotta get beyond the Karman Line. I got dreams to fulfill. I could be a contender!

JM: Speaking of dreams, Virgin Galactic is the embodiment of dreams of commercial spaceflight. Richard Branson’s brainchild promises a thrilling experience aboard their SpaceShipTwo, carrying space tourists on suborbital jaunts into the upper atmosphere.

ZIGGY: The allure of gliding through the edge of space is undeniable, but SpaceShipTwo is for humans, not satellites. 

Richard’s attempt to launch satellites to space, Virgin Orbit, made six flights, four of which were successful. But, the company just suspended operations, laying off 85% of their workforce. I may as well try to book a flight on Pan Am!

JM: Then we have United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Their Atlas V rocket is a reliable workhorse in the industry. 

ZIGGY: Their reputation for delivering payloads to orbit sure is commendable, but I can’t shake the feeling they’re lacking in captivating allure. Do I wanna go to space in a family sedan instead of a flashy sports car? Dependable, but maybe lacking a bit of pizzazz.

JM: Pizzazz. He wants pizzazz. 

Finally, let’s not forget about Arianespace, the European stalwart in the space race. They’ve been launching rockets from the picturesque Kourou spaceport in French Guiana for decades. Their Ariane rockets have a solid reputation for reliability and have successfully carried numerous payloads to space. They may not have the same level of recognition as some of the other contenders, but 95 percent of Ariane 5 launches were successful, including the recent launch of JUICE, now on its way to Jupiter. 

ZIGGY: After careful evaluation of each company’s strengths and weaknesses, I’ve come to a decision! 

[[suspenseful music.]]

No! No! I don’t wanna go! You can’t make me! Why did I have to develop sentience? And prescience? And all those other ences? I’m scccaaaarrreeeeeddd!

Next week on The Cosmic Companion it’s THE END OF THE WORLD! 


We will answer the question: “What would happen if the asteroid that ended the age of dinosaurs struck today? Join us starting on 3 June for Apocalypse 2.0: From Dinosaurs to Doomsday! We’ll be talking with Steve Brusatte (consulting paleontologist for Jurassic World Dominion), on How to Survive in the Time of Dinosaurs, from Nat Geo!

If you enjoyed this episode of The Cosmic Companion, please tell your resident AI to start recommending us to all their friends. And they’ll tell two bots, and they’ll tell two bots, and so on and so on… Or just share, comment, and follow. That works as well.

Sign up for a flight on our newsletter at That’s also pretty cool. 

Clear skies!

[[Hey! It turns out the flight to space wasn’t too bad after all. Anyway, I’ve been up here in orbit for a while now. And, I’m wondering… how I get back home… How do I get back to Earth? Hello? Hello? Why isn’t anyone answering me?]]


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