Why the Billionaire Space Race Matters, or Not

Much of modern technology is a two edged sword. Think nuclear power/bombs, fossil-fueled industrial-consumer abundance/waste, chemical (eg.,plastic) products/pollution. There are many more. Various modes of transportation (air, land, and sea) have allowed humans a vast capacity for mobility unavailable before the industrial era, but always at a cost ignored or denied.

One of the features of technological ‘progress’ is that it seems impossible to imagine living without the conveniences or fun we have experienced for only a short while. However, the deep human dilemma we face today with impending catastrophic collapse of the stable climate and ecosystems from which we benefitted for the last 11,000 years or more is not about a need to go back. It is how we choose to go forward.

Billionaire Brats in Space

I was fascinated with the flight of birds and airplanes since I was a small boy. My teachers got angry with me in elementary school. I would sit there looking out the window at passing aircraft, daydreaming of flight instead of doing the boring spelling or arithmetic assignment. Then, with a few minutes left in the period, I would rush through the assignment and complete it correctly with seconds to spare. My teachers were clearly more interested in compliance than in performance.

Branson, Musk, and Bezos are iconic business performers in an economy of increasing extremes. Perhaps their most distinguishing characteristic is their success as entrepreneurs. Elon Musk ‘s success rests on having taken control of Tesla from its founders, although he is credited as Tesla’s founder. Richard Branson comes in second for building a diverse group of businesses under the “Virgin” branded image. Jeff Bezos scores highest on growing his business on leveraged debt and brutal treatment of low-wage workers, rather than taking early profits (of which he now has so much). Bottom line, they are all salesmen, hustlers for a utopian dream that if believed will make them even richer while leaving their fellow citizens holding the toxic bag. The extent of the billionaire grift is reflected in Bezos’ claim that he wants to outsource heavy manufacturing to space in order to keep our planet pristine. Has he ever heard of physics, gravity, and energy?

These very different billionaires have one thing in common: Big Ego. Although I have always been fascinated with flight and have flown airplanes for about 45 years now, I have never had quite the same attitude about space travel. Oh, I did read with great interest all those Flash Gordon comics in my youth. And I found the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey to be a powerful and captivating tale of humanity, technology and ultimate reality.

However, now I have to factor in the planetary costs of various human endeavors before judging their value. The moon landing back in 1969 was such a grand challenge and success that it captivated my imagination, like everyone else’s. But today, space travel seems little more than a solution in search of a problem to solve. Why do billionaires need astronaut wings? Ego, nothing more. What has that got to do with you or me? Nothing but illusion. Sorry, it is not about the advancement of humanity. It is about the insatiable greed and self-induced glory of billionaire brats.

I don’t care how much money Jeff Bezos makes on the backs of his abused underpaid workers. Such practices are barbaric in any case; he is happy to exploit the planet just as he has exploited low-wage Amazon workers. Yet, there is something fundamentally flawed in buying the world’s biggest hi-tech sailing yacht and a second ship with a helipad just because his girlfriend is a helicopter pilot and there is no room on the giant sailing ship for a helipad because of all the giant masts and sails.

Each of these guys has his own form of hypocrisy. Branson claims an environmental conscience and has made gestures in that direction, but they are trivial compared with his ego project: highly polluting space flight. Musk has contributed much to the advent of electric vehicles and electricity storage. However, ego always comes first.

Ego Instead of Earth System Restoration

The airlines pose a big problem when it comes to carbon emissions into the upper atmosphere. Yet airline travel has become so integral to the business system that almost nobody is willing to give it up. A bunch of electric aviation start-ups have already made great progress and envision electric powered flight for short commuter routes and for automated “air taxis.” We are very far, however, from long haul electrically powered large passenger airliners. Meanwhile, the planet cannot afford the carbon emissions that post-pandemic return of widespread airline travel will produce.

Rocket propulsion of spacecraft, even just to the “edge of space,” produces vastly more CO2 than airliners, especially per passenger. All the hype over a burgeoning of “space tourism” is just that. At a quarter million dollars per ticket for a one-hour ride, Branson’s imaginary goal of making space flight available to “everyone” is a perverse distortion of a pipe dream. If anything, the price will go u. The “Space Port” near Truth or Consequences New Mexico, is a publicly funded tribute to private profit as local businesses clamor for ways to expand their tourist-oriented businesses.

The Importance of Space Flight in the Twenty-first Century

It seems endemic to the US economy that local businesses and municipal governments so commonly clamor for outside large corporations to come in and stimulate economic growth and create more jobs for their citizens. Whether it is an NFL team persuading a city to pay the huge costs of building a new state-of-the-art stadium, or an expanding company like Netflix or Amazon bidding for major tax forgiveness and public investments in the infrastructure their proposed large facilities and operations would need, the rewards never turn out quite as advertised.

So it will be with space tourism. The people will never recoup the costs in public funds that subsidize this new playground for the rich. Hi-tech industries need mostly highly trained engineers and technicians; most local workers do not qualify. In the case of space tourism, the few hotel, restaurant, and entertainment jobs generated by a smattering of space tourists coming to town are not likely to provide a living wage for any but a very few workers.

The importance of space flight and space tourism in the 21st century is negative; that is, it should never happen. The billionaire brats would not be multi-billionaires if the political economy were not so skewed to favor the enrichment of the investor class at the expense of everyone else. Bezos pays no taxes on his huge annual income. I hear the objections: you cannot stop human progress or the never-ending quest for technological advancement and personal adventure. I get that. Nevertheless, it is entirely misplaced.

However, given the present circumstances on planet Earth, we must turn every bit of creativity and resources we can to the greatest challenge ever: to reinstate at least some of the Earth System stability that we enjoyed through the ten or eleven millennia of the Holocene so that we may survive into the unknowns of the Anthropocene. The real challenges of human survival on Earth make the challenge of space travel seem rather trivial as well as counter-productive. Human progress will not be achieved throught the promotion of space tourism.

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