October 14, 2021 - 1:00pm

Jeff Bezos has spent something like $7 billion on going to space. Fortune put it at “at least” $5.5 billion in July, but Bezos has said he was spending about a billion a year since about 2015, so I think it’s probably a bit more than that.

And Bezos is not the only billionaire spending some of his billions on putting rockets into space. Elon Musk’s SpaceX, depending how you measure these things, has probably spent a billion or so too. Richard Branson’s at it as well.

You can understand that it feels indulgent, especially when you’re taking William Shatner to space for four minutes. So I understand Prince William’s response that: “We need some of the world’s greatest brains and minds fixed on trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live.”

But while I understand it, I think it is — on quite a profound level — wrong and silly.

First, cheap space flight is not in itself unhelpful to climate change. Yes, each rocket launch puts a fair amount of carbon into the atmosphere; but it’s negligible in real terms. It’s about 300 tonnes of carbon per launch. That’s roughly the equivalent of one passenger plane flying back and forth across the Atlantic, which happens nearly two thousand times a day, not a few times a year. It’s just not a significant contributor. (Obviously that will change if it becomes mass-market, but that’s not something we need to worry about imminently.)

And if Blue Origin and SpaceX manage to reduce the cost of space flight significantly, then it becomes much cheaper to get climate-monitoring satellites into space. I’d be somewhat surprised if the new space programmes actually hindered the fight against climate change.

But more importantly, it’s weird to present it as either-or. You could say to Jeff Bezos that all the money he’s spent on Blue Origin could have been spent on developing green energy. If he’d done that, the $7 billion he’s spent might have covered … a bit more than 20% of the cost of the Hinckley Point C nuclear power plant. Or he could have built about 14,000 acres of solar farms, probably producing about 5,000 megawatt hours of electricity a year. That’s a little more than 0.0001% of the US’s total electricity use in 2020.

Seven billion is a rounding error — less than a rounding error — in the effort to prevent climate change. Complaining that we’re wasting money on it is like worrying you’ll empty the sea with a teaspoon.

Also, it’s almost certainly better that Bezos spends his money on developing cheap reusable space flight than on almost anything else. He could buy himself a dozen massive yachts and a gigantic island in the Caribbean. You’d probably never read about that, but they’d do a lot less good for the world than the development of cheap space flight would. It’s the XKCD Charity cartoon made flesh: if you do something good, you get told off for not doing something better, but if you do something nakedly selfish no one comments.

Yes, it’s self-indulgent. But the world will probably be slightly better in the long run if we have cheap ways of getting off its surface. 

And also: as with every new technology, it gets cheaper. A Cray 2 supercomputer cost $32 million in 1985 and performed a bit less than two billion operations per second. Your iPhone 12 is about 5,000 times faster and costs less than one-30,000th as much. The cost of space flight probably won’t fall that much, that quickly. But it will probably fall an awful lot, and carbon-neutral rocket fuels do exist. Maybe my children will be able to go into space, safely, at non-ruinous prices, and without damaging the climate. I think that would be amazing, and you have to start somewhere.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.