24 July 2021

Why the billionaire Space Race is something to cheer


July has been a bumper month for rich blokes going into space. It’s therefore also been a bumper month for outrage and ridicule. 

On July 11, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic ‘spaceplane’ flew, not into space, but to the edge of it. The mission lasted two and a half hours, so about the same as my train from Leeds to London. Once it reached an altitude of 80km above the earth, the passengers had six minutes to experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the earth before returning. About the time it takes me to get a cup of tea from the buffet and spill it everywhere whilst trying to add milk.

Next up, Jeff Bezos, blasting off on July 20 in the Blue Origin New Shepard rocket. He went higher than Branson, reaching an altitude of over 100km above the Earth. As well as going higher, this was much faster: the whole ‘mission’ lasted 10 minutes, including three minutes at the top to enjoy weightlessness and see the Earth’s curvature. 

The third space-loving billionaire, Elon Musk, sat out July’s space race, but had already won a much more important competition earlier in the year when his SpaceX company beat Bezos’s Blue Origin to win a contract from NASA to land the first astronauts on the Moon since 1972.

The amount of money it’s taken to enable those short flights is truly eyewatering. It’s estimated that Bezos spent over $5 billion for those 10 minutes, which makes even the Heathrow Express look like good value. Except, of course, those billions aren’t just buying a quick trip to the stars and an ego boost for incredibly rich men.

The reactions to Branson and Bezos’ trips have been predictably negative. Criticisms fall into three broad camps:

  1. Space exploration is a waste of money. With so many pressing needs here on earth it’s wrong to pour billions into what is essentially a vanity exercise. 
  2. If they’ve got so much spare cash, why don’t they pay their taxes and treat their workers better. 
  3. The commercialisation of space travel is wrong and will just lead to yet another industry offering expensive perks to the super-wealthy. 

There is actually a fourth category of criticism which boils down to ‘I really, really, don’t like these people’, which is perfectly reasonable but not particularly relevant or useful to debate.

The first three criticisms do have some substance to them and it’s instructive to examine them more closely. 

First up, is space exploration actually useful? This is an attack as old as space travel itself. There are three main defences of space travel as a worthy investment. First is pure knowledge. Space exploration uncovers knowledge about our universe and our origins. Some people find that fascinating and inspiring, even if it leaves others cold. But scientific research as the pursuit of knowledge, without any immediate practical application, is one of humanity’s fundamental drives and leads us to higher planes of understanding and wonder. If you want to dismiss space exploration as pointless, you should also be willing to dismiss great swathes of other pure research.  

Second, is the possibility of colonising other planets and establishing human settlements away from the Earth. Musk in particular believes that humanity’s future rests on settling Mars.

The third defence probably has the widest appeal and is the most immediate justification for the money poured into space travel by both states and individuals: practical uses here on Earth for innovations developed in order to enable space exploration and the research that it has enabled. 

Looking back over the last few decades it is truly astounding how many of these there are. Products in daily use today which only exist because of the research carried out for space exploration include: artificial limbs; the insulin pump; the polymers used in firefighters’ heat-resistant suits; shock absorbers to protect buildings during earthquakes; solar cells; water filtration technology; wireless headsets; camera phones; CAT scans; air purifiers; memory foam; home insulation; LED devices that relieve pain.

Medical advances are a particularly rich area of space science-induced developments. For example, one of the problems with space flight is the toll it takes on the human body, especially muscle loss. This has led to intensive research on the International Space Station into ways to prevent, slow down or reverse those effects. One project in the last couple of years has been testing a new drug plus a new way of delivering it constantly and steadily through an implant, rather than in pills or injections. If the research proves successful for spaceflight it could also be transformative for people with muscle-wasting diseases on earth.

On to the next criticism: rather than spending billions on space rockets they should pay their taxes and treat their workers properly. This one is particularly aimed at Jeff Bezos, who displayed an impressive tin-ear when he thanked Amazon’s staff and customers for paying for his space trip. I definitely think Amazon should pay more tax. And that they should pay their workers better and improve conditions in their warehouses. However, I don’t think that the reason Bezos doesn’t do those things is because he’s saving the money for space travel. The two things are linked through our emotional reaction to him, not because changing one would have any impact on the other. 

Finally, what about the critique that we are allowing space to be commercialised and turned into a playground for the uber-wealthy? This comes down to the fundamental benefits of competition. The first space race in the 20th century was driven by the rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union. Other countries have since got in on the action, racing to put personnel on the International Space Station and expand and use the satellite network. However, the enthusiasm of nation states for bearing the whole cost of space exploration has waned. One benefit of increased opening up to private companies is the additional investment it levers in. The other is that the intense competition may spur even greater innovation.

Space tourism is only ever likely to be open to the very rich and will probably continue to be irritating to many people because of that. However, that exclusiveness isn’t a serious reason to call a halt to the whole endeavour, any more than the existence of private islands is a reason to ban boats or planes.

There is a more fundamental challenge however about the ownership of the Moon, Mars, the skies themselves and the resources and knowledge they provide. As the Moon is increasingly visited by private companies as well as national agencies, perhaps even colonised, how it will it be used? Will access be modelled on the Antarctic, with strict controls on uses and population? Or will governments and private companies just stake claims? The legal issues are extremely complex. We urgently need an internationally agreed framework, with treaties agreed by the countries actively involved in space flight and a clear set of rules governing the involvement of private companies. 

Much of the criticism of Jeff Bezos centres on the ability of large companies like Amazon to avoid paying much tax. That arises from the failure of nations and international bodies to keep up with the internationalisation of the world’s economy and put in place effective rules to govern it. Now that economy is set to become not just international but inter-planetary, we must not make the same mistake.

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Helen Barnard is Deputy Director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Research & Policy Director of Pro Bono Economics.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.