The suborbital flights of Richard Branson—co-founder of the Virgin Group and one of Earth’s famous billionaires—and of Jeff Bezos—founder of Amazon and another of the planet’s publicly wealthy—has drawn the ire of many of my fellow leftists, both because they are billionaires and because the money spent on a brief hop to an orbital journey that almost six hundred human beings have already made could have been dedicated instead to furthering presumably worthier goals.
Some people claim that the rich should be free to do with their money as they please, within legal limits. Others claim that they should share it with those whose labour helped produce it. This is a worthwhile discussion, but it reminds me of the passage in the Gospel of John in which Judas objects to the anointing of Jesus’s feet because the ointment used could have been sold, and the money given to the poor.
These billionaires’ suborbital flights could be seen as an extravagant indulgence (although they could also be seen as a necessary step on the way to developing a new kind of tourist industry, featuring vacations above the Kármán line). The suborbital flights neither pushed the boundaries of exploration, nor accomplished anything of direct practical value (the flights could not, for example, have been used to extend the working life of the aging Hubble Telescope). But the critics of Branson’s and Bezos’ flights aren’t seeing the bigger picture.
I grew up watching Star Trek reruns, new episodes of The Next Generation and televised films of real space exploration involving the space shuttle and the Voyager probes. So I’ve always thought of space travel as something that governments did: the idea of commercial or private space flight has felt unnatural to me. But more importantly, when billionaires project themselves into the cosmos, this raises the question of property rights. Who owns a given planet, moon, asteroid or star? Although reaching stars will probably require the use of international resources for many centuries to come, it looks like celestial bodies within our own solar system may be up for grabs. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 restricts its signatories to non-military uses of space, but that agreement is worth no more than the ability of the United Nations to enforce it. Since there is currently no well-established legal authority over anything that is not Earth, whoever can get to a particular place first will probably be able to claim control over it. After all, who is going to evict them? As Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation suggests, getting even a single pound into orbit requires many, many pounds of fuel. So far, this practical constraint has held back the sorts of land grabs that were seen across our globe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the times, they are a-changin’.
There is nothing new about the involvement of corporations in American space exploration. NASA has always contracted with corporations to build the equipment and vehicles it needs for its programmes. And now, with the space shuttles’ retirement, the US will have no choice but to buy time on someone else’s rockets, whether they belong to other governments or to corporations. The European Space Agency uses publicly held commercial companies such as Arianespace for this purpose, while the space agencies of other nations have typically bought launches from the US, Europeans or Russians. (The latter use design bureaus that operate under the authority of government agencies.) And it is not only billionaires and large corporations that are reaching towards space. The Planetary Society, a non-profit founded in 1980, is testing the feasibility of using light sails to propel spacecraft. The venture capitalist Yuri Milner, yet another billionaire who is literally reaching for the stars, is hoping—according to his breakthrough starshot proposal—to use light-sails technology to send probes to Alpha Centauri, a star system just over four light years away, which would take only decades to reach if the technology works.
Given the vastness of space and the effort required to get there, we are going to need a mix of governments, wealthy investors and interest groups to participate. The writers of Star Trek (set in a kind of post-scarcity communist society) intuited that private efforts would be in the mix: their fictional universe includes a variety of independent operators—hauling cargo, working on the fringes of society and pushing beyond the boundaries of Federation-controlled regions.
All this activity raises the question, what is the value of a space programme to humanity? Dwight Eisenhower famously said, in his “The Chance for Peace” speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors on 16 April 1953, that “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” Does a similar dichotomy apply to our attempts to expand outwards from this planet?
This same concern is raised with respect to all forms of basic research, and there is a good practical answer: today’s investigations of nature and efforts to expand our reach lead to tomorrow’s job opportunities and new technologies—including ones that save lives, such as improved hurricane-monitoring. At some point, another large asteroid or comet will inevitably come our way (as the 4.6-billion-year history of Earth shows). When it does, our ongoing efforts to explore space may have yielded the technologies to save humanity from destruction. In addition, despite contraceptives and education, our global population may continue to rise—and this is yet another reason why the possibility of inhabiting more than one tiny location in the vastness of the universe has its appeal.
Does space research and exploration cost a lot of money? Yes, if compared to the finances of ordinary people. But the money allocated to NASA in the 2020 federal budget is less than one half of one percent of federal expenditures. And in recent years, the US has spent more than two-thirds as much annually as any other nation. These government outlays are tiny in comparison with the amounts spent by the world’s leading militaries. And space exploration arguably yields a higher return on investment, since it lacks the morally ambiguous character of research dedicated to war-making.
Most importantly, though, money spent on space exploration, whether spent by billionaires or governments, does not reduce the amount of money that could be spent on progressive social programmes to secure healthcare and education for all, guarantee every full-time worker a living wage or make criminal justice systems more just. The rich could pay a wealth tax, and pay their workers fair wages, and still afford to take vacations in orbit.
And then, consider how different we would be, as a species, if we didn’t explore space. This may seem like a strange thing to say, since we have been doing it for only around 70 years. But space is currently our unconquered horizon. And we are a species that has always found horizons irresistible and inspirational. From our beginnings in a small region of East Africa, we spread out until we covered the globe. Our outward drive has been fundamental to our nature: we are beings who—as Aristotle puts it in his Metaphysics—desire to know.
The progressive programme is not wrong to focus on welfare, education and equality, but we must remember to feed the spirit as well as the body—to set goals that are beyond easy reach. If this means that a few billionaires will spend money on space toys, so be it, because anyone who can show us a way to get into outer space helps expand our collective horizons—and when the technology they are developing has matured, the fruits of their adventurousness can be used for the benefit of all.