While the rich have long enjoyed luxury cars, mansions and yachts, the newest luxury item is the spaceship. Musk has the most useful rockets—his SpaceX vessels can put satellites into orbit and reach the International Space Station. While they do have some innovations, they are essential an evolution of existing rockets rather than a revolution.
Branson has a spaceplane, which can be likened to a passenger version of the old X-15. While spaceplanes do have potential, Virgin Galactic seems to be mostly focused on space tourism. Bezos has a conventional rocket that shot him into space. Because of its limited reach, it seems suitable mainly for space tourism. As would be expected, many critics see these billionaire space vessels as wasteful excesses: resources are being expended for ego trips to space that would be better used to address serious problems here on earth.
Bezos acknowledged the validity of the critics’ point, saying “Well, I say they’re largely right. We have to do both. You know, we have lots of problems here and now on Earth and we need to work on those, and we always need to look to the future. We’ve always done that as a species, as a civilization. We have to do both.” He claimed that his mission is aimed at “building a road to space for the next generations to do amazing things there, and those amazing things will solve problems here on Earth.” Is Bezos right?
I do agree that he is correct that the critics are largely right: while Musk can claim that his SpaceX ships put cargo into space, Branson and Bezos have just been joyriding (just barely) into space. Vast resources were expended to enable these joyrides, and, in the case of Bezos, it can be argued that his flight was enabled by his brutal exploitation of his workforce. As is now well known, Amazon workers have been pushed so hard that they need to pee in bottles to meet the requirements of their job. Amazon’s leadership has also been busy crushing unions, thus enabling Bezos to expand his wealth the point that he has his own rocket ship. This presents a powerful symbol in the context of the usual arguments about taxing the rich and increasing the minimum wage. It might seem absurd to argue that the rich would be hurt by having to pay taxes or that business like Amazon would be meaningfully harmed if they had to provide workers with better pay and benefits. After all, if a company is so well off that its owner has his own rocket ship, it would seem absurd to argue against treating employees better. Put crudely, Bezos could have forgone some of that rocket ship money and eased up on his employees so that they would not have needed to pee in bottles. Given his bountiful wealth, he could easily have done both. But he decided not to. He also could have used all those resources to address problems here on earth while still maintaining a lavish lifestyle including multiple yachts. His counter is, as mentioned above, that he is building a road to space.
For sci-fi fans, it is obvious that Bezos is thinking of Heinlein’s novella The Man Who Sold the Moon. This novella recounts the machinations of Harriman, “the last of the robber barons”, to get to the moon. In the story, Harriman manipulates and schemes to get backing for his plan and uses the money to acquire talented people to solve the technical problems. The story includes a successful flight the moon and ends with the plans to establish a colony on the moon. But Harriman is never allowed to go to the moon: he is seen as too important to risk. Heinlein does present a plausible tale and it is still well worth reading today. But, of course, the actual world turned out differently.
Like most other huge endeavors, the moon was reached as part of a collective effort by a state—the United States put the first person on the moon. For a while, it seemed like a version of Heinlein’s vision might come to pass. But a moon colony was never established and humanity’s expansion into space has been slow and limited for many reasons.
We do have the technology to create a moon base and plans have long existed to do just that. As such, Bezos and his fellows are not really in the business of overcoming technological hurdles for a moon base or space expansion. As noted above, Musk and Bezos have rockets and Branson has a spaceplane—nothing really new there. Also, while they are extremely wealthy, they do not have the resources to establish a significant moon base, let alone a Mars colony. But, one could argue, what they can do is shape public policy towards space. To use an obvious analogy, the United States government has heavily subsidized such things as the railroads, fossil fuels and interstate highways. This has usually been done at the behest of the wealthy. This public investment has provided infrastructure and, of course, vast fortunes for some. As such, the space billionaires might be planning something similar with space: a vast public investment gets them into a position where they can make private profit. Musk seems to be doing the best here; he has been getting contracts from the state to provide space vessels and services. Bezos and Branson are behind here, but they seem to be aiming at space tourism.
In terms of billionaires building the road to space, that is a good analogy: the road was built by public funds and now the billionaires are cashing in—rather like with public roads. It is certainly debatable whether contracting to pay billions to billionaires for space is superior to using those billions to fund public space operations—as was the model in the past. While there is the myth that the private sector is magically better than the public sector, there is the obvious question of how billionaires will make a profit while somehow also being cheaper and better than what could be done by NASA.
In terms of the road to space leading to amazing things that will solve problems here on earth, a case can be made for this. One example is asteroid mining. Asteroids contain vast resources and mining in space would seem to avoid the usual environmental harms of mining on earth. However, there is the obvious concern about how those resources will be used and who they will benefit. If this just leads to space trillionaires while most people remain poor, then this will only solve the problem of not being a space trillionaire for a very few. One would need to go through and assess all the plausible benefits to make (or break) this claim, which is beyond the scope of this short essay.
In closing, an obvious critical consideration is what would be the best investment for problem solving. Sci-fi fans find the idea of space as the solution appealing—I know I do. But we need to be realistic about this. For example, while a Mars colony sounds cool, those same resources could be used to address problems here on earth. For example, the failing infrastructure of the United States could be repaired and upgraded—this would solve many problems. It would not be as cool as a Mars colony, but would certainly solve more problems.
Because of my sci-fi shaped mind, I do really want humanity to go into space. But moral considerations point to focusing more on solving problems here on earth. As Bezos said, we can do both—but this would require the billionaires to decide to use some of their billions to solve these problems. Many of which they themselves have created and thus could often easily fix.