In its promethean quest to conquer the heavens and transcend the limitations of earthly existence, the human race may be on the cusp of reaching an historic milestone: in this case, the successful launch of a giant barrel filled with pork into outer space.
Thanks in large part to the giant corporate PR machines now in the fray, the burgeoning contest for dominance of the twenty-first century space travel market tends to be perceived in the loftiest of terms: saturated with futurist mythology and defined by grandiose pronouncements about asteroid mining, multiyear voyages to Mars, and interstellar colonization. But, as this week’s wrangling in Congress suggests, the accelerating rivalry between Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is destined to play out in a decidedly less than utopian fashion.
The tell, as documented in a recent report from the Intercept, is an absurd $10 billion amendment to the sinisterly titled Endless Frontier Act introduced by Washington senator Maria Cantwell. Under the highly dubious auspices of funding scientific and technological research, the cash would almost certainly go straight to Blue Origin — which last month narrowly missed out on a lucrative contract to put astronauts on the moon, and just so happens to be based in Cantwell’s home state (the contract instead went to SpaceX, a move NASA has justified with the absolute howler that it was attempting to “preserve a competitive environment”).
The question at hand may officially concern lunar exploration, but the whole episode looks like a textbook case of pork barrel politics run amok. In introducing a rival amendment intended to strip the bill of its absurd $10 billion handout to Blue Origin, the famously direct junior senator from Vermont simply had this to say: “It does not make a lot of sense to me that we would provide billions of dollars to a company owned by the wealthiest guy in America.”
As is typically the case, Bernie Sanders had it right: Jeff Bezos’s wealth is by this point less an actual number than a matter for philosophical debate, and there is no tenable justification for handing him public money. He was equally right in using the occasion to question the whole idea of privately led space exploration:
When we were younger, and Neil Armstrong made it to the Moon, there was incredible joy and pride in this country that the United States of America did something people had forever thought was impossible: we sent a man to the Moon … an extraordinary accomplishment for all of humanity, not just the United States…. I worry very much that what we are seeing now is two of the wealthiest people in this country — Elon Musk and Mr. Bezos — deciding that they are going to take control over our [efforts] to get to the Moon and, maybe, even the extraordinary accomplishment of getting to Mars…. I have a real problem that, to a significant degree, we are privatizing that effort…. This is something that … all of us should be part of, and not simply a private corporate undertaking.
As the free market innovates its way to monopolistic control of the solar system by the Earth’s two richest men, it remains as yet unclear how far both technology and capitalism will actually allow the billionaire-dominated venture to go. Bezos and Musk, as you might expect, paint a utopian portrait of interplanetary colonies and abundant life flourishing off-world.
Investors in speculative companies like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, meanwhile, hope that the mining of precious metals from asteroids will unlock untold wealth and bring about a new industrial revolution. The most probable scenario for such efforts, of course, is also far more banal: a primary focus on control of vital infrastructure like satellites by large corporations and their billionaire owners.
In the unlikely event that technology ever does allow interstellar colonization to be both possible and profitable, however, it’s safe to assume the result will look more like Blade Runner than Star Trek if people like Musk and Bezos are involved. There’s no reason to believe, after all, that extending the profit motive into outer space would yield a different set of social relations than the ones it already produces here on Earth (think orbital Tesla workhouses and overworked Amazon employees trying to relieve themselves in zero-g).
Either way, this week’s absurd congressional wranglings over glorified handouts to the world’s two wealthiest men are as good a reminder as any that a privatized space race has far more to do with earthly vice than off-world utopia. Billionaires have already been allowed to devour much of the global economy. Must we let them own the solar system too?