Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have already had their joyrides in space, or at least to the edge of it. Elon Musk can’t be far behind. Everyone seems offended at the notion of billionaires — white male billionaires at that — rocketing around outside of the atmosphere. Not me. Someone’s got to do it.
For many, the problem with all of this is simply that there are any billionaires at all. It’s a fair point. Billionaires seem to be everywhere, increasing in number each year. The United States has 724. China — the world’s largest Communist nation, ahem — ranks second with 698. Worldwide, Forbes estimates, there are 2,755. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders would impose some sort of wealth tax (chances of that happening: zero), but even that would still leave the mega-rich mega rich.
So, given that there are billionaires, what’s wrong with them going to space? Maybe it’s the grating egos nakedly on display, as if they don’t have enough privilege back on Earth to keep them happy. Again, a fair point. And still others think, quite reasonably, If the billionaires are going to blithely give away their money, why can’t they be like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, spending it here on Earth, trying to end poverty, cure disease, and the like? Those are the real challenges that face humanity, runs the thinking. Exploring space is an obvious frivolity by comparison.
This, of course, is part of a longstanding argument, one that began with the race to the moon more than a half century ago and hasn’t diminished since. True, as NASA loves to remind us, the space program has given us a plethora of innovations, including satellite communications, dramatically improved weather forecasting, GPS, water purification systems, and, lest we forget, freeze-dried ice cream.
But pretty much all of those innovations didn’t require shooting humans into space. The vast majority of spacecraft don’t have crews; of the 104 successful launches in 2020, for example, just four had humans aboard (two from the US and two from Russia). The remainder accomplished all manner of exciting things: putting satellites in orbit, sending the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter to explore Mars, and doing lots of secret national security stuff we’re not supposed to know about.
Humans, it turns out, are rarely needed in space and, as robotics and artificial intelligence continue to advance, there’s a credible argument that soon we’ll be entirely unnecessary there. Flights without people are cheaper — humans require extensive safety and support systems — and if one spacecraft blows up (and 10 failed for various reasons in 2020) all that’s lost is some equipment.
So, what sense does it make for Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Bezos’s Blue Origin, and Musk’s SpaceX to be bent on doing the exact opposite: putting more humans above Earth, trying to turn spaceflight into something that’s almost as commonplace (and potentially bad for the environment) as flying a jet? If there’s little practical value to putting humans in space, it seems logical to conclude, it shouldn’t be done.
And yet, not everything we do is logical. Not everything we do is practical. There’s no good reason to scale a mountain, but it represents a desire on the part of humans to aspire to something more than they are. And for many — and I include myself in this camp — the greatest of humanity’s aspirations is to transcend the boundaries of our planet. It’s about exploration, wrote the authors of a 2008 MIT report titled “The Future of Human Spaceflight,” “an expansion of the realm of human experience, bringing people into new places, situations, and environments, expanding and redefining what it means to be human... It is in effect a cultural conversation on the nature and meaning of human life.” Or, to put it another way, “Space: the final frontier ....”
If you buy into this notion — and I recognize that many do not — then there are basically two choices as to who mounts such an effort: the government or the super-wealthy.
It likely won’t be the government. Today, unlike in the 1960s, putting people in space enjoys little political support. A 2015 Pew survey found respondents ranked space exploration last in a list of 13 major policy areas. That low regard at the time helps explain why, after the end of the space shuttle program in 2011, NASA shut down its uncrewed flights. And maybe it shouldn’t be the government anyway. After decades of overspending, poor risk management, and a lack of innovation, it became clear even to NASA that it needed to turn to the private sector. Hence, its contracts with companies such as SpaceX.
Thus into the breach step the billionaire boys, intent on regularizing space travel: making it cheaper and ever more common. With their development of reusable technologies, they are also making it more efficient. They fund all of this out of their own pockets (though tin-eared Bezos thanked “every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer” for paying for his trip),as well as the deep pockets of the merely wealthy, offering “space tourism,” which clearly is not an end to itself but rather a means to pushing ahead the technology and know-how to reach, and possibly even settle, the moon and the planets.
Simply put: These billionaires have the means and are willing to take risks others — especially the government — can’t or won’t take. And those risks are not just financial; they include putting themselves in harm’s way, riding in their own rockets as a way to prove their own confidence in the safety and efficacy of their spacecraft.
Maybe all of this fails. Maybe humanity never truly leaps off of planet Earth. But I’m happy some are trying.
Tom Keane is a Boston-area writer. Send comments to email@example.com.