July 14, 2021

Karl Marx once said that “all great world-historic events and personages appear twice… the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” He was thinking of Napoleon I and Napoleon III, but here’s another pair: Captain Scott and Jeff Bezos.

On 17 January, 1912, Scott and his men arrived at the South Pole — only to find that Roald Amundsen had got there first. Turning back in defeat, they perished on their way home.

Let’s wish Jeff Bezos better luck, because next Tuesday he, too, is making a perilous journey. On that day the richest man in the world — net worth $177 billion — will zoom into space aboard his own rocket. But, unlike Scott, he sets off knowing he’s been pipped to the post, the Amundsen in this tale being Britain’s beloved train controller Richard Branson, just back from a jaunt to the cosmos on his Virgin Galactic spaceplane.

Except that Blue Origin, the Bezos space company, isn’t having it. They say that outer space starts at the Kármán line — an altitude of 100 kilometres. Because Branson didn’t go quite that high, his trip doesn’t really count. 

The Kármán line, though, is arbitrary; the Earth’s atmosphere doesn’t suddenly stop at a suspiciously round number, it fades out. One can set the boundary a bit lower (as the US Air Force does) — in which case Branson did go into space. 

If this spat looks like a “pissing contest” (as a Virgin Galactic test pilot put it in a since-deleted tweet) then that’s because it clearly is. Space travel is becoming the ultimate positional good — and space ships the playthings of billionaires. With the relative decline of nation-states and the rise of the super-rich, perhaps this was inevitable; after all, people have often described the wealthy as seeing the world from 30,000 ft, so why not 300,000?

It’s significant, however, that Bezos should be the one leading the way, not just because of his vast riches, but for the means by which he made them. The immense gulf between him and his deunionised, demoralised workers has now acquired full physical expression.

It’s not just Bezos and Branson duking it out. The second richest man in the world, Elon Musk — worth a mere $150 billion — also has a rocket ship venture, SpaceX. Musk has been admirably frank about the whole thing, telling volunteers that a few of them may die in the process, although Elon also hopes to send a million people to Mars.

Even this parade of egos is humble compared to the man really responsible for the space race, Donald Trump, at least in his own mind. “I made it possible for them to do this”, the former president modestly observed in a recent interview. He has no plans to go into space himself, however. 

Space tourism dates back to the year when hyper-globalisation began, 2001. It was then that Dennis Tito became the first to pay his way to the stars, hailing a ride with the Russians. But with Branson’s successful flight, space tourism is now set to become a growth industry; Virgin Galactic is said to have pre-sold 600 seats, and prospective passengers reportedly include Leonardo DiCaprio and Justin Bieber. 

All rockets have a Freudian quality, due to the very nature of physics, but the shape of the New Shepard is so rude it could have been designed by Joe Orton.

For all the theatrics, however, this isn’t just billionaire boys and their toys — they’re actually making important breakthroughs, especially on cost. The key challenge with space is not how far away it is, but that it’s directly above us. Lifting mass against the gravitational pull of the Earth requires a huge expenditure of energy and therefore cash. 

A key metric is how much it costs to lift one kilogram into low Earth orbit (LEO). According to Wendy Whitman Cobb, a space policy analyst, the “cost to LEO” between 1970 and 2000 was about $18,500 per kilo, while America’s Space Shuttle was even more expensive at $54,500 per kilo.   

However, the new generation of privately-developed space vehicles has brought costs tumbling down. A paper by Harry Jones of the NASA Ames Research Centre quotes a figure of just $2,720 per kilo for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. In other words, the billionaires are transforming the economics of spaceflight, and if this trend continues it will indeed be affordable to, if not the many, then more of the few.

That’s so often the way with private enterprise. While it’s become fashionable to emphasise the role of the state in getting new technologies off the ground (literally in this case), it takes the discipline of the bottom line to turn expensive inventions into affordable products. 

One can always complain about the how the rich got rich, but if they use their wealth to achieve something that wouldn’t have happened otherwise then perhaps it’s worth the injustice.

And there’s much more at stake here than opening-up space tourism to mere millionaires. This really could be one giant leap for us all. Space-based internet services like StarLink and OneWeb are already launching, and before long, nowhere on Earth need be offline. Looking further ahead, we can see exciting possibilities for space-based solar power, zero-gravity manufacturing and asteroid mining. Without even leaving our solar system, we can dream — realistically — of a new age of abundance.

However, that depends on getting one thing straight: space is no place for people. The solar system may be full of natural resources, but from a human habitation point of view it is, quite frankly, a shithole. Think of the least hospitable place on the planet: Antarctica. Unless you’re a scientist, you’d be mad to want to live there. Yet, compared to everywhere apart from Earth, it’s really quite cosy: there’s air, water, temperatures that won’t kill you instantly, and a lack of deadly radiation. Luxury.

So if we can’t imagine the large-scale colonisation of Antartica anytime soon, then we can forget about Mars or the Moon — where the difficulties are multiplied a million-fold. Inevitably, humankind will get its grubby mitts on the solar system’s resources by sending up robots instead.

The greatest danger of the Branson and Bezos space race is that by putting themselves front-and-centre of space exploration, they’re actually slowing down our progress to the stars. Heroic, but essentially pointless, trips are a distraction. We’d do much better to concentrate our efforts on deploying machines that can keep going without air, gravity, sleep or publicity. That doesn’t mean that we cut ourselves out of the picture completely, but we need to work from home on this one. 

The alternative is that, over the decades, we build-up a human workforce in Earth orbit and beyond. Given the cost constraints, the bare minimum will be done to make their lives tolerable. Indeed, the economic incentive to immiserate the space-based working class would be overwhelming.

Throughout human history, the taming of frontiers has involved exploitation, sometimes extreme and vicious. Examples include the Trans-Atlantic slave trade; the transportation of convicts to Australia; and the use of indentured labour in the American colonies. For a modern-day example look at the international shipping industry — the worst parts of which are notorious for the maltreatment of crew members. Lying beyond national jurisdictions, the High Seas are the closest Earthly equivalent to outer space — and the most plausible model for a spaced-based economy. 

The sheer luxury of space tourism is a false dawn. As a source of income, it may help sustain the spaceflight industry and its progress on costs — but that’s just the trouble. If we make it economically viable to transport workers instead of tourists we can be sure that they’ll be exploited. Utterly dependent on their employers for their most basic needs and with no way home, they’ll be in a uniquely vulnerable position as corporations turn the heavens into hell. If you thought workers’ rights were bad under globalisation, wait until we let the billionaires have the entire solar system.