This week, William Shatner, a 90-year-old actor perhaps best known for portraying the captain of a futuristic spacefaring frigate, got his first taste of the final frontier. He shared this transcendent experience with three other intrepid individuals who rocketed into suborbital space aboard a commercial missile. That trip and the many private spaceflights that preceded it have inspired millions to imagine themselves among the stars once again. Those marvelous excursions have also moved a smaller number of critics to bitterly mourn the fruits of our prosperity and technological prowess, which they insist would be better used for more quotidian purposes.
Following Shatner’s trek, the U.K.’s Prince William said entrepreneurs would better serve the public by “trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live.” The Duke of Cambridge gave voice to a fashionable Luddism when he insisted that technological achievement was a zero-sum game. It is “really is quite crucial to be focusing on this [planet] rather than giving up and heading out into space to try and think of solutions for the future.”
Of course, the commercialization of space and the prosperity it promises does not come at the expense of the technologies that herald a more sustainable future. Indeed, the processes that will one day exploit the abundant resources orbiting the sun are those that will make a greener future possible. But William’s lament is best understood not as genuine distaste for the misplaced priorities of magnates pioneering private space travel but as status anxiety.
When Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos made his foray into orbit in luxuriously appointed passenger capsule abord his firm’s reusable booster rocket—a technological feat that has somehow become mundane—his inspiring sojourn was also met with a chorus of progressive scolding. Their individual criticisms differ, but all are undergirded by the same crippling fear: A government monopoly and the prohibitive power it provides those who command it is withering away before their eyes.
Bezos’s flight was deemed a gross misapplication of resources. Congressman Mark Pocan said, “2.2 billion people don’t have access to clean drinking water, but, hooray! Another billionaire just made it to the edge of space.” And apparently this wonderful spectacle was made possible only by abusing Amazon’s laborers. “It’s the exploitation of workers that financed his little jaunt into space,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez wrote. “And for what? We did this 60 years ago with NASA with the public. All of this for a billionaire to have a joyride into space? I think people would rather have healthcare.”
The whole nascent enterprise around achieving escape velocity is “depressing,” according to former Justice Department spokesman Mark Miller; quite unlike the NASA-led missions he enjoyed watching as a child. The competition over access to space is a tone-deaf display of opulent wealth and heedless environmental destruction. “Jeff Bezos Uses Money to Spew Emissions Directly into Upper Atmosphere During Space Trip,” Rolling Stone’s snarky headline read.
If there is anything worth celebrating here, it could only be seen by squinting through the lens of identity politics. As the Washington Post’s Robin Givhan wrote, 82-year-old aviator and female astronaut Wally Funk’s long-delayed trip to the outer atmosphere was something to applaud, even if the “overzealous machismo” of the man who got her there was not.
Among progressives, it is the height of fashion to look upon this, the dawn of a revolution in the human experience, and attack it from great moral heights.
This blinkered display is many things—technophobic, ideologically myopic, and repugnantly avaricious, among others. Perhaps most of all, it is recklessly self-destructive. As Reps. Katherine Clark and Pramila Jayapal wrote in July, Bezos’s venture communicated nothing more to them than that there is too much money in private hands and the government needs to confiscate as much of it as possible. That confiscatory impulse similarly informs Prince William’s anxiety over the private capital he would like to see allocated without regard for the market’s commercial pressures. But even if the government could miracle the wealth of the “space billionaires” into the treasury, it wouldn’t approach the revenues that will result from economic activity in orbit within our lifetimes.
Bezos’s highly publicized efforts to prove the concept of passenger travel in space is just the beginning. Reservations for similar “joyrides” are already being booked on a speculative basis. And that diversion for the relatively well-off presages a more banal future in which suborbital travel becomes routine and affordable, thanks to competition among these and other firms. Space tourism will beget space-based industry. Demand for the hospitality sector in orbit is already proven, as is interest among businesses for research and development facilities in space–a unique setting that affords at low-cost access to reduced gravity, near-vacuum conditions, and total isolation. In the slightly more distant future, and with Congress’s participation, the firms that commit to extraterrestrial industry will begin to explore the untold resources orbiting the sun and exploit them for money.
If that isn’t convincing enough for those who insist that space exploration and government services are somehow mutually exclusive, we must presume these progressives are more interested in the confiscation than what might be done with those proceeds.
Suppose you find the industry that these billionaires created from scratch “depressing” because it has upended the government’s monopoly on space exploration. In that case, you haven’t been paying attention for at least a decade. In 2011, NASA retired the space shuttle and outsourced the job of getting human beings into orbit to Russia at exorbitant expense to American taxpayers. Government created the vacuum that private industry filled in the pursuit of government contracts—both from NASA and the Pentagon. Thanks to people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, among other firms in this sector, ferrying people and satellites into orbit is once again a domestic affair. From the private investors who made this happen to the public-sector interests contracting their services, everyone seems to agree that this is a more productive model for pursuing future endeavors in space.
Critics of all this believe their skepticism is a mark of their seriousness. They are (quite literally) down to earth in their distaste for what the New Republic’s Jacob Silverman called a “tragically wasteful ego contest” that allows these entrepreneurs and their “untaxed billions” to avoid confronting “earthly inequalities.” But in their otherwise noble pursuit of fairness and equality, these progressives would consign us to stagnation.
Bezos, who dreamed of colonizing space long before he was a self-made billionaire managing a service to which two-thirds of all U.S. households subscribe, foretells of a future in which he imagines most heavy industry conducted off-world. The materials we strip-mine from the developing world at great human cost–which allows the left to post class-conscious nostrums on social media–will be derived from asteroids. The power generation that burning fossil fuels would otherwise produce will instead be generated in fusion reactors using helium-3 atoms—a technologically feasible advance that is possible in the near term only by mining this isotope from lunar regolith. Free-floating cylindrical colonies in orbit powered by solar energy—which, absent an atmosphere, is not limited by our earthly need to store this weather-dependent resource in lithium-ion batteries—herald a future of near-limitless growth.
All this sounds science fictional. But then, so, too, did the idea of “space billionaires” competing with one another to do what was the exclusive province of ungainly government enterprises just ten years ago. We’re at the precipice of a new age. It will be marked by spectacular undertakings, the immense rewards of which will be enjoyed by all. What we’re privileged to witness is the flowering of progress. It’s a tragic irony that the only people who seem unhappy about all this are our self-described progressives.