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As visual metaphors go, it was not subtle. Billionaire one-upmanship took on a new, disturbingly priapic form this week as Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, became the latest corporate titan to launch himself to the heavens. Bezos, the world’s (and now near-space’s) richest man followed Virgin Galactic’s Sir Richard Branson, who travelled to the edge of space earlier this month. But strip back the self-congratulatory bombast and the silly outfits, and this new, privatised space race should be welcomed.
Last century’s space race was one between superpowers. The frontier of this century’s race to commercialise space travel is instead being fought over by magnates of multinational corporations. Arguably, it is neither Bezos nor Branson who is winning this race. While the pioneers of space tourism’s two companies jostle over who actually touched space, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has already become indispensable for delivering cargo and crew to the International Space Station.
Taxpayers may well see the outsourcing of space exploration to private companies as a good thing. Nasa shelved its shuttle programme a decade ago because the cost-benefit relationship no longer made sense. It took SpaceX to develop technologies such as reusable rockets that made those costs plummet, which therefore encouraged innovation and competition once more in the space industry, from which Nasa can benefit. Once budgetary constraints are loosened, teams are freer to experiment, and a virtuous circle is created.
Private wealth’s contribution should not be overstated: SpaceX dominates a formerly state-owned industry after receiving taxpayer-funded grants, and has developed a market where the government is a key customer. Space exploration more generally benefits from US government largesse as part of efforts to compete with the ambitions of China, which recently sent a rover to Mars.
Admittedly, the timing of this month’s rocket launches jarred, as much of the world suffered devastating heatwaves and floods. Creating a space-tourism industry for the rich to enjoy, which has taken 20 years, billions of dollars — and in Virgin Galactic’s case, the lives of four people — seems distasteful to many in a year marred by the pandemic. The post-launch thanks bestowed by Bezos, whose personal wealth increased by an estimated $73bn during the pandemic, on Amazon employees and customers “because you guys paid for all this” rang only too true, if not exactly in the way he had hoped. Many asked why the tycoons’ wealth could not be better used in solving more pressing terrestrial problems.
But this misses the point. The space race is not a philanthropic endeavour, or (entirely) a vanity project. Some analysts believe the space-tourism industry could grow by $5bn by 2025. In any case, for Bezos, space tourism is merely one step towards the giant leap of creating space colonies to take the burden off Earth. Meanwhile, Musk wants to boost “interplanetary life” and take humans not just to the moon but even to Mars. Their endeavours may ultimately benefit mankind.
What must be hoped is that these would-be masters of the universe listen to Michael Collins, who flew the Apollo 11 around the moon in 1969 as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their historic moonwalk. Days before his death in April, Collins reiterated how seeing the Earth from the vantage point of a shuttle window highlighted its fragility, and our need to protect the planet. It is not the size of your fortune that matters but what you do with it.