Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin and Amazon, became the second billionaire to visit the edge of space and perform microgravity somersaults last summer, a week and a half after Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic spaceplane soared aloft from New Mexico. The journeys have contributed to a historic month in spaceflight, instilling a sense of wonder and awe.
Perhaps an even more common reaction is a hard eye roll, followed by a remark about obscene wealth, egos, or worse.
After years of watching Bezos, Branson, and SpaceX’s Elon Musk expand their empires beyond the grasp of gravity, I believe such cynicism is justified, but it absolves the rest of us. The spectacle of the billionaire space race also reveals a sad truth about our species’ future in space: we’ve lost control of our own fate in the cosmos.
A Las Vegas oddsmaker gave Musk and SpaceX 5-to-1 odds of being the first to land humans on Mars more than five years ago. NASA had an 80-to-1 chance of being first. I thought this was a bit silly at the time, given that NASA had already put people on the moon and SpaceX had only recently begun sending cargo into orbit.
After a half-decade wait, those odds appear more reasonable: SpaceX is already launching and landing prototypes of its Mars rocket, while NASA’s Space Launch System, designed for missions to the moon and beyond, has yet to debut.
Furthermore, the average person is much more likely to be aware of what Elon Musk and SpaceX, as well as Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin, are up to in space than they are of NASA’s frequently postponed plans for the moon, Mars, or the James Webb Space Telescope.
So it’s no surprise that entrepreneurs like Musk and Bezos have been able to identify the gap left by an ageing and inefficient institution like NASA, seize the opportunity to build a better rocket, and paint a bolder future vision.
And this is where the real issue arises. Musk’s grand ambition of colonising Mars, and Bezos’ plan to launch industry and possibly some sweet new luxury condos into orbit, are unprecedented, civilization-level endeavours conceived primarily on the whims of just two men.
Consider this. The odds now appear to be in our favour that the first member of our species will set foot on another planet because Musk, aka the “Dogefather” — the world’s biggest fan of 420 and 69 jokes — decided to do so.
This is not to diminish Musk’s accomplishments (well, maybe just a little bit).
A return to Public Space
Complaining about billionaires wasting money on space when we have so many problems on Earth seems to me to be missing the point. What should be concerning, in my opinion, is how the space agenda and public discourse are now largely driven by some of the world’s wealthiest individuals.
Perhaps the efforts of these men and their companies will result in significant benefits for humanity, but we can also decide as a society which space ventures to pursue for their own sake, for our own sake.
Space could hold the key to solving some of humanity’s most pressing issues, whether through space-based solar power, asteroid mining, or, yes, converting Mars into a backup planet. These are all pretty far-fetched ideas, to be sure, but there aren’t many resources devoted to researching their potential, which is how things start to seem less far-fetched.
By the way, the history of space innovation suggests that learning how to survive on the moon or Mars could also teach us new ways to reduce our own impact on the Earth’s environment.
NASA paved the way for Musk, Bezos, and others to take over production of rockets that appear to be more capable, efficient, and cost-effective than previous eras’ pioneering, publicly funded spacecraft. That’s fantastic. Rather than waiting for another rich dude to take the lead, it is now up to us, the people, to decide which frontiers we want to explore next.