Updated from original post of July 11, 2021.
We have a full-blown billionaire space race going. Elon Musk is launching cars into space for … reasons. Richard Branson is now the first private astronaut – he rushed to beat Jeff Bezos. What to make of this? Where will this private space race go?
The technical achievement is not massive. The U.S. Air Force was operating this type of technology in the 1950s. Nor is Branson the first space tourist. Several rich people have paid for trips to space stations, and spent a good deal more time there. But the social achievement is not only rich guys owning space vehicles, but owning space vehicles for the purpose of taking them into space. Branson will undoubtedly soon be followed by Bezos and Musk. So they and their ilk can go to space, what are they going to do when they get there?
First, let’s say loud and clear that expanded access to and use of space is good. Satellites providing information and service are boons to research, commerce, and have had lots of benefits. That’s not to say an unregulated rush to space is a good thing. There are innumerable policy issues.
Launching gazillions of satellites to provide internet access to remote areas is not better than actually providing decent broadband service. Space pollution is becoming an increasing problem. The more nations do military stuff in space without international treaties, the more likely we are to weaponize space. Space is already militarized, that is home to an array of military assets. The question is if space will be weaponized meaning it is a front in which assets are attacked, creating the potential for valuable civilian services to be lost in a conflict.
Long and short (and I’m not a space policy expert – there are plenty however) some commercialization of space is good, but it probably should be regulated. Space policy is a pretty hot place to be, and perhaps over in my other blog, I’ll write about the potential agenda of VP Harris, who is head of the Space Council. Space tourism is the almost inevitable by-product of this, fine. Private space programs by billionaires are perhaps yet another unavoidable part of this equation. Wealthy adventurers have been central to exploration. (We’ll table the question of whether or not it is good for society that individuals can accumulate wealth on this scale.)
I’m interested in what billionaire egos will do with access to space. My favorite author, the late Robertson Davies wrote quite a bit about the wealthy because he saw how they spent their wealth as an expression of their soul. I also have a more than passing interesting in antiquities trafficking. Discussing it with an investigator who specialized in the issue, I asked about the motivations of the buyers. He replied, simply, “It’s rich guys who want to have something none of their buddies have.”
As a motivation of human behavior, this is a significant one. And it isn’t just rich guys, so many of us desire experiences and things that others in our social set don’t have.
A flight on Branson’s spacecraft will go for about $250,000. That’s a lot of money, but, for the one percent, it really isn’t. This means that there are quite literally millions of potential customers, and prices will probably come down. Billionaires are not going to excited by short jaunts into space when workaday finance bros are going as part of their hedge fund team building exercise.
Billionaires may want full orbits or longer stays in space, with the ultimate goal of going to the moon. This will undoubtedly happen, but it’s important to note that space really, really wants to kill people. Life in space is dangerous, uncomfortable, and very demanding (here’s how astronauts take shits.)
Bezos is already exercising another prerogative of the uber-wealthy, extravagant gifts. He is granting people the opportunity to go to space. Soon many may go to space, but very few can send them.
This image is of a simulation the impact of a 15 gram piece of space debris moving at the very high speeds typical of space debris on a block of aluminum. The crater is only 5 inches deep, but still, point taken.
But it’s also stunning.
As I wrote above, billionaires like to collect cools stuff that other people can’t get. (Check out the ancient trade in exotic birds and animals – there’s nothing new under the sun.)
Looking for something super cool to do with their wealth, it is easy to imagine billionaires going up, flying around to find a bit of debris and slamming it into blocks of metal. They’ll get a very cool and stunning souvenir, a hell of a story, and even claim to be doing their bit for the environment. (BTW, this is not an effective way to deal with space junk – but has that stopped self-aggrandizement before? Also, this process could easily create more junk. Space debris requires a serious international policy approach.)
Alternately, maybe they’ll just go up and collect space junk and bring it back to display. Maybe they won’t go up, but instead control the operation from the ground. Maybe they’ll commission artists to work with them.
There are huge technical problems to accomplishing this, physics in space is unforgiving of human dreams and fantasies. Even if that can be overcome, it will require formidable technical skills. There are probably legal issues as well (can you bring space crap back to earth, there might environmental legislation on this, or it might be crazy radioactive.)
But in a world where billionaires are running private space programs – and all sorts of other bonkers stuff – can we really say that anything is off the table for the mega-rich?