What Billionaires Going To Space Really Means

Richard Branson went high enough that he technically went to space. Just days later, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos went even higher in a rocket built by his company, Blue Origin.

It sparked a lot of discussion about billionaires spending their own money to go to space.

A prime example is this bit from Vox:

While Blue Origin has made history in several ways, the flight is also a reminder that many people see space tourism, at least for the foreseeable future, as primarily funded by and for the very rich — and that it won’t do much to advance science and our understanding of space.

“The experience of a few hyper-wealthy amateurs paying $28 million to vomit for 15 minutes probably won’t bring many average people closer to spaceflight or change their impression of it,” Matthew Hersch, a historian of technology at Harvard, told Recode in an email. “Compared to NASA’s space vehicles, they are clever amusement park rides with minimal utility, intended to support a tourism business that has never been part of NASA’s charter.”

In fact, Bezos and Blue Origin are not the only private ventures looking to cash in on joyrides to space. Virgin Galactic, fresh off Branson’s flight, is already moving ahead with its plans to test and modify its planes for eventual commercial service. And this fall, SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, is sending its rocket to space too, with billionaire Jared Isaacman aboard. At the same time, NASA is also bringing these companies along for more ambitious ventures, including hiring SpaceX to transport its astronauts to the International Space Station.

“Showing customers [and] showing the world that they have enough confidence in their system to get on board and experience it themselves ... is a big part of this,” Whitman Cobb, of the Air Force School, told Recode. “Part of it is also ego.”

Of course, they’re focused on space tourism, and they’re more polite about it than many on the internet.

Plenty of people have opinions on how Branson and Bezos should spend their money, including solving world hunger or fixing the environment—which is hilarious since both men are known to be generous philanthropists.

Not mentioned in this is Elon Musk. While Musk himself hasn’t been to space, his company, Space X, has made plenty of trips and is making routine trips to the International Space Station with supplies and new personnel.

There are a few things that people just don’t seem to get.

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First, these men all earned their money. They can spend it however the hell they want to. They earned that right by providing something the free market wanted.

Second, only an idiot thinks this is really just about space tourism.

Look, right now, space tourism is the best option they have to be competitive. Space X has the government contracts all but locked up right now and there’s not enough demand for multiple companies to put satellites in orbit. Getting rich people to pay an insane sum of money for a short hop up is how you fund it.

But it won’t always be the domain of the wealthy. Sooner or later, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and Space X will figure out how to make it affordable and useful for the average American.

Imagine, if you will, a trip from the East Coast of the United States to Australia that takes just a couple of hours. Sounds insane? Not really. Virgin Galactic’s space tourism model may well create a craft that will take ordinary people on such a trip for not much more than a regular airline ticket.

See, when new technologies pop up, it’s usually the wealthy who get to enjoy it first. After all, they’ve got the money. That’s what happened with air flights and now it’s affordable enough that the majority of Americans can manage to pay for an occasional airline ticket.

Look at technology as a whole. DVDs, CDs, MP3 players, cell phones, personal computers, and thousands of other devices were originally expensive luxuries that only the wealthy could afford.

Yet as time rolls on, companies learn. What originated as a luxury becomes affordable for more and more people.

Why would space be different?

Earlier today, I saw this on Twitter. I snagged it for elsewhere and I don’t remember where I found it, but I enjoyed it and thought it would be relevant.

It’s a great moment in a show I’ve always enjoyed, but it’s also true. We, as a species, are explorers. We seek out the new and find what we didn’t know before. We’re innately curious, which is part of why we’re the dominant species on the planet. We looked at a broken rock and wondered if we could make it into a sharp edge. Then we wondered if we could put that edge on a stick and make a spear.

Space is next.

Yet what has NASA been doing? Muslim outreach and discussing social justice. Undoubtedly, some believe that’s of the utmost importance, but it’s not getting us to space as a species.

“But we have problems to solve here on this planet,” someone will say.

They’re right. We do. However, we don’t really know what will come of this private space race. Between Musk, Branson, and Bezos, one of them may solve a problem for space that may have deeper ramifications for here on Earth.

And if not, so what? Why is it imperative that these three men and their competitors who are working toward their own space programs solve the problems? Yes, there are problems here on Earth, but so what? There will always be problems here on Earth. You don’t do anyone any favors by not recognizing that fact.

Besides, name a problem more pressing than the survival of our species? There are a thousand different ways life can end here on this planet, but if we’re not a single-planet species, that’s a hiccup.

To do that, though, we need space.

More importantly, though, we need the drive to do more than higher, faster, and longer. We also need to do it cheaper, and that’s something government will always suck at. They build the Soujourner rover for $25 million with off-the-rack parts, but by the time Perseverance was built, the program cost almost $2.8 billion.

Governments really aren’t good and thrift.

Private companies, though, are pretty good at that. After all, if they save money, they can lower prices and sell more volume.

And that is why space tourism won’t remain the domain of the filthy rich. Anyway, moving on…

In time, these companies will work out how to colonize Mars, the moon, and the satellite bodies in orbit around Jupiter. They’ll build space habitats and factories that vent their toxic emissions into the vacuum of space.

What we’ll see is that so many of our problems on this planet will eventually get solved by going to space, including things like overpopulation.

But it starts with the vanity of the wealthy.

If Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson want expensive new toys and they’re using their own money to do it, what do we care? In time, their vanity will save humanity, and that’ll make everything worth it.