A SpaceX live webcast shows the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Inspiration4 crew blasting off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida – Copyright SPACEX/AFP –
Many people, meaning millions, are truly outraged and offended by billionaires going into space on joyrides. There’s quite a lot to talk about, none of it is simple, and some of it is surprising as indicators of the real situation in space.
Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are the two obvious subjects for the public fury. The criticism of Musk in particular is ferocious, and based on genuine anger. Musk is in an odd position, to put it mildly. As a tech leader, he’s admired, loathed, and hit with anything in the dictionary on a regular basis.
Bezos is in a somewhat different, if overlapping, position. He’s hated as the “perpetrator” of Amazon, with all the attendant baggage, rational or otherwise. (How’s he supposed to “undo” Amazon?) He’s now hated for going into space as well.
Self-indulgence is another mixed blessing as an argument. Ah…sure… Nobody would want to go into space if they could afford it, would they? It’s a great way of highlighting the rich vs poor situation.
More seriously, the billionaires in space are being accused of ignoring problems on Earth. The “space vs Earth” argument is an easy target for critics, and exactly what the billionaires are supposed to be doing on Earth is usually expressed in very general terms.
Less impressive is the fact that the “space vs Earth” argument is itself rapidly becoming redundant. Most of the polluters and contaminants could be put out in space with efficient logistic support and better-than-snail’s-pace space drives. Contaminants and HAZMATs could be managed a lot easier at much less risk to people, too.
This endless flak is an occupational hazard for both Bezos and Musk. They’ve both probably grown pretty thick skins as a result of the constant abuse. The issues, however, remain, and some of the criticism isn’t on the personal level; it’s about practical issues:
- The environmental effect of so many space launches is one of the issues. This is a real thing; rocket fuel isn’t exactly environmentally friendly. The argument does have some traction as an observed fact; the problem is nobody’s looking for cleaner fuels at the same time.
- Musk’s Starlink satellites are seen as collateral damage in this scenario. The stated target to launch 1300 satellites in 6 months is obviously a talking point when it comes to emissions. The trouble is that with Starlink’s “internet in space” agenda, a lot of satellites are actually needed to deliver. This is a for-profit venture, and a lot of money on the ground is also involved. Choices? Not many.
- Adding to space junk, which has long been at truly insanely incompetent levels, is another legitimate, difficult to manage, worry. These 1300 satellites are going to join the thousands of tons of garbage already mindlessly orbiting the planet, at their own risk. Efforts to manage space junk have been utterly abysmal, and the situation isn’t improving. If Musk or anyone else could come up with a way of managing this mess, either in self-defense or altruistically, it’d help, a lot.
The other side of a much-battered coin in space
There’s a far less obvious point to be made about billionaires in space. It’s as much a practical cultural point as a problem in progress. It’s the nature of space economic development. This development is what’s going to support future space missions and exploration.
“Humanity reaching for the stars” is pretty much an accepted thing. The original idea used to be very gung-ho, with a united humanity taking on the universe. There’s nothing at all wrong with that idea. The problem is that a ridiculously disunited, future-myopic, mercenary humanity doesn’t think like that.
Trillions of dollars, not just billions, will be heading into space soon enough. That money will be expecting to come back and make more money. The financial drivers are in place; it’s just waiting for the switches to be hit. Market forces, market farces, and market expectations are ready to go, in blissful ignorance of the risks but looking for the rewards.
The billionaires have a role in this. The privatization of space may sound like, and could be, a logic-twisting moneygrubbing atrocity in progress, but there’s a caveat, and it’s a big one.
The US space program stalled for decades, not entirely, but in many ways, due to Congressional miserliness and lack of forward vision. “Gung-ho” it definitely wasn’t. Pettiness and total lack of insight ruled for a long time. The result of this super-cluster is that China is now pretty much on a par with all the basics. That competition is likely to heat up a lot, and fast, with many ramifications back on Earth.
Musk, like it or not, has made a point – The US can do a lot more than stagnate in space and hitch lifts from the Russians. It’s been a situation which defies any sort of strategic logic, yet it was accepted, “apparently” without much question. (You can never be entirely sure what’s expedient and what’s utter dollar-blind stupidity when it comes to space budgets.)
Musk is operating without hitting the public purse too hard, if at all. So is Bezos to a large extent. The economic viability of space travel is crucial to future scenarios. It’s critical to doing anything at all in space, and it’s now looking a lot healthier.
Of course, all of this doesn’t defuse the criticisms at all. There are undeniably multiple issues for the future, and a lot for the present. Should individuals dictate the future of humanity in space? Should governments dither and nitpick about crucial future issues? Should space be privatized at all?
The arguments, both accurate and somewhat too smugly self-serving, are way too simple. The future of humans in space may well be for millions of years. Creating problems and obstacles at the start isn’t going to help much if you don’t even try to solve those problems. What are the solutions? Any guesses? I ask because I haven’t seen any.
Criticisms of anything or anyone in space are necessary. At least the issues are clarified, to some extent, however verbosely. Humanity shouldn’t be vegetating through the next big moves.
Billionaires in space are a reality. Their money is going up there with them. A lot of money on Earth is directly tied to these moves. The future of humanity will go with them, in whatever usually godawful condition humanity may be.
Suggestion – Criticize objectives and methods with practical arguments, and you’ll hit paydirt. Criticize people, and you’ll hit nothing. Make the criticism objective and backed by science. …Because ultimately that’s what will make or break these ventures.