There has been no shortage of opinion surrounding what has been derisively dubbed by some as the “pointless billionaire space race.” Pundits have not hesitated to express their ire toward what they view as a new pet project for billionaires.
Despite the controversy that accompanies the uber-wealthy’s interest in the private space industry, this development and its effects deserve to be treated with more nuance. When discussing the topic of billionaires in space, the hatred and distrust toward these individuals often trumps any positive technological advancements their companies have achieved on the path to civilian space flight.
Simply labeling their endeavors in commercial space flight “a rich person’s ‘joyride’” undercuts the sheer immensity of safely ferrying a person to and from the edge of space, and in the case of SpaceX, a private space manufacturer, having docked and undocked with the international space station in low-Earth orbit.
While viewing the success of the current era of space transportation, one might overlook the fact that of the 355 astronauts who flew aboard NASA’s space shuttles from 1981 to 2011, 14 were killed. Simply put, many things can and have gone wrong when attempting to enter space, and any step taken closer to a safer launch system benefits all of humanity.
However, for some people, they view the contest of private space companies as “a tragically wasteful ego contest,” a distraction from more pressing issues such as proliferating climate catastrophes, inequality, lack of health care and insufficient housing.
This view is shortsighted as it fails to recognize the key role space is already playing in combating a host of the aforementioned crises.
According to the World Economic Forum, space technology is helping end hunger by imaging vast swathes of agricultural land and by helping produce agricultural indexes, along with ensuring people access to clean water through the monitoring of reservoirs via satellite images. Cheaper and more efficient space launch systems mean deploying even more satellites to help better address these problems.
The microgravity environment of space could potentially allow the fabrication of human organs using a 3D bioprinter. With the demand for yearly organ transplants dwarfing the supply, manufacturing organs in space would help address the overwhelming needs of medical patients.
The most common contention leveled against these “space billionaires” is that the wealth they accumulate through their endeavors will only serve to enrich them, widening the gap between the haves and the have nots. While these concerns are natural, they often overlook technology’s profound ability to democratize knowledge and reshape society for the better.
The private space industry has already significantly reduced the capital investment necessary to embark on projects such as internet satellite constellations. Satellite internet providers have long promised the ability to provide secure internet connectivity to the remaining 3.7 billion unconnected people on the earth, but only now is it attainable.
With current technology, nearly a third of the human population could access secure financial accounts and the vast library of human knowledge, once restricted to more developed nations, in under a decade. The significance of these two effects alone toward the advancement of humanity, which could be further advanced through private interests in space, would be incalculable.
Like the creation of the internet and the opening of the western frontier in the U.S., the impact that the opening of space will have on the course of humanity is unforeseeable. But the impact is sure to be monumental.
We shouldn’t let our distaste of certain billionaires cloud our view of the path that lies ahead. Just as the robber barons of yesteryear played a large role in shaping the nation but are now long forgotten, so too will Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson.