On July 11, 2021, Sir Richard Branson and three employees of his private space venture, Virgin Galactic, traveled 53.5 miles over Earth in a voyage taking just over one hour. A little over a week later, Jeff Bezos’ New Shepard rocket lifted off on a short mission past the Kármán Line, 66.5 miles above Earth. The Amazon founder, his brother Mark, and both the youngest and oldest space travelers ever–Oliver Daeman (18) and Wally Funk (82)–were aboard the first manned Blue Origin space voyage.
It’s likely that the serial entrepreneur Elon Musk will eventually take part in a space mission, but his SpaceX venture isn’t lagging behind these. In May 2020, against a backdrop of lockdowns and pandemic hysteria, a Crew Dragon Demo-2 was the first private firm to carry humans to space, and to bring astronauts to the International Space Station.
The era of private space travel is well underway. And yet against a backdrop of economic uncertainty, fear mongering over the spread of the Covid Delta variant, and endless political bickering, the successful private space endeavors have been met by a blizzard of criticism, most of which is rooted in class warfarist sentiments. Various objections have included brushing off the space trips as the simple avocation of bored, exceedingly well-heeled gadabouts; grousing about the considerable expenses incurred; and asserting that the scientific yield of such undertakings are inconsequential.
(But first: yes, some of these firms have received government aid. They are not the tidy bastions of hardscrabble entrepreneurialism one hopes for. But the intention here is to address the inimical responses to recent space achievements.)
Space Travel as a “Joyride”
A chunk of the punditry described Bezos’ trip as a “joyride.” It’s a remarkably obtuse characterization largely (while not entirely) emanating from the side of the political spectrum that allegedly champions sensitivity and finds victimhood under every proverbial stone.
Space travel, as a paraphrasing of President John F. Kennedy’s September 1962 Rice University speech observes, “is hard.” At high altitudes and traveling at several times the speed of sound, even slight mishaps can become full-fledged accidents, and accidents tend to be catastrophic. Yes, there were fifteen prior test flights of the Blue Origin craft which paved the way for the mission several weeks ago. But a 2014 Virgin Galactic suborbital craft broke apart, killing one pilot. Scaled Composites, an associated firm, lost three employees seven years prior to that. And there were five test flights and twenty four missions of the space shuttle before the January 1986 Challenger disaster, and eighty-six more before the January 2003 Columbia break-up.
The odds of losing one’s life during space travel are difficult to calculate in light of the different types of missions, various craft, accounting for repeat flights, and other complexities. A general consensus estimates that historically between roughly 1.3% and 4% of space flights have ended in death; that’s several times the odds of being in a fatal car crash (by one 2019 estimate, 3 in 1,000 car crashes, or 0.3%, result in death) which is in turn vastly more dangerous than commercial air travel, and so on.
Consider, alone, the menace of space debris. From NASA itself:
More than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris, or “space junk,” are tracked by the Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network (SSN) sensors. Much more debris–too small to be tracked, but large enough to threaten human spaceflight and robotic missions–exist in the near-Earth space environment. Since both the debris and the spacecraft are travelling at extremely high speeds (approximately 15,700 mph in low Earth orbit), an impact of even a tiny piece of orbital debris with a spacecraft could create big problems.
Neither is the peril of orbiting flotsam errant speculation or a hypothetical; pieces of orbital debris the size of the head of a pin or much smaller represent the “highest mission-ending risk to…spacecraft operating in low Earth orbit:”
Even tiny paint flecks can damage a spacecraft when traveling at these velocities. A number of space shuttle windows were replaced because of damage caused by material that was analyzed and shown to be paint flecks…In 1996, a French satellite was hit and damaged by debris from a space rocket that had exploded a decade earlier. On Feb 10, 2009, a defunct Russian spacecraft collided with and destroyed a functioning US Iridium commercial spacecraft. The collision added more than 2,300 pieces of large, trackable debris and [more] to the inventory of space junk. China’s 2007 anti-satellite test, which used a missile to destroy an old weather satellite, added more than 3,500 pieces of large, trackable debris and many more smaller [pieces.]
There are procedures in place to track most of the debris, but like so much else in the realm of space exploration those systems are new, in constant development, and subject to both shortcomings and outright errors. (To add a wrinkle, calamitous outcomes may even come from one’s own vessel: the space shuttle Columbia was terminally destroyed by the damage caused when one of its insulated tiles struck the edge of the left wing.)
This, in addition to supersonic speeds, inhospitable environs, susceptibility to rapidly changing conditions, exposure to cosmic rays, few possibilities for surviving a serious mishap, and all while quite literally sitting atop massive quantities of combustible fuel render the dismissive attitudes of critics equally or more dismissible. It is a common adage among rigid egalitarians that the super rich are mortal and “can’t take [their wealth] with them.” True enough, but the sneerers should additionally acknowledge that Bezos, Branson, and other private spacefarers are hardly safer by virtue of their astronomical net worths than the taxpayer-financed variety. The accounts of Komarov, Gargarin, and others are tragic and chilling. What have been caustically denigrated as carefree junkets represent real and considerable (not imagined) risk, and are nothing if not courageous.
Some of the reactions have focused upon the tremendous costs associated with corporate space programs. It’s not especially surprising that a substantial portion of the commentariat is ready and willing to criticize private spending decisions. But in light of the recent trend in decrying inequality and its causes, this particular line of argumentation rings with particular absurdity.
Spending on private space exploration is the veritable antithesis of “hoarding” – a recent and flawed censure of the rich. To be sure, it represents consumption on a massive scale; a scale, in fact, comparable with little else. Bezos’ 10 minute, 10-second flight ran him an estimated $550 million per minute: money spent on research, resources, labor, skilled professionals, and a gambit of other requirements. It’s hardly conspicuous consumption, and certainly not of the types recently revealed elsewhere, which scream hypocrisy yet have received considerably–and suspiciously–less attention.
And on that note, Bezos’ post-jaunt thanking of Amazon’s employees and customers was minimized as “tin-earned” and “tone deaf.” It’s difficult to imagine who he should have credited, but it seems likely that to not have paid any lip-service would have been similarly criticized.
The Science Dividend
Let’s promptly dispense with the notion that any of these flights will add anything to our scientific knowledge, unless it’s the establishment of a new metric for how long it takes for money to burn a hole in your pocket when you have more than you could possibly need.
So much for “follow[ing] the science.” In fact, determining means for improving both the reliability and reusability of spacecraft are significant innovations. The maturation of space tourism, as well, will generate scads of actionable data: information which the highly esoteric nature of government space operations undertaken mostly by military personnel has not been conducive to. Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, SpaceX, and a variety of other private firms have facilitated experiments for universities and agencies and investigated ways of making payloads bound for space more cost-effective.
An editorial on the Sierra Club website, meanwhile, opined,
Last week, billionaire Richard Branson soared high above the earth in a rocket, to the edge of space. The flight marked the launch of the commercial space travel that Branson’s company Virgin Galactic plans to begin offering next year…Two days earlier, Death Valley reached 130 degrees Fahrenheit, the hottest temperature on Earth ever recorded. More than 31 million American people who were not floating giddily in space were under heat advisories, in the third major heat wave of the summer…As climate change accelerates on the planet, the world’s wealthiest people seem to be seeking diversions of entertainment as far from the earth as they can get, beyond the carbon-laden atmosphere, and into the few minutes of microgravity that such space flights will afford…Will the very small fraction of extremely wealthy humans who escape Earth’s atmosphere be able to see it from up there as the precious blue home that it is, in need of a redirection of their resources? … The money and power spent trying to leave it could be used to take care of this ship we’ve been given, ensuring that all of us have a ticket to the experience of a lifetime.
Both Branson and Bezos have made clear that their aspirations began in their youths. Younger Boomers had Star Trek to inspire them; Gen Xers had Star Wars, space-based games, and a vast assemblage of other media and entertainment spurring us on. Branson himself said that his July 11th space flight was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
There’s no reason not to believe that, and back as early as 2004 Branson expressed celestial intentions. But the provenance of Bezos’ ambition, as well as one agent of his motivation, can be dated. In his 1982 high school valedictorian speech some 39 year ago, the Miami Herald quoted him as saying that the goal of space travel would be to “preserve the Earth…turn[ing it] into a huge national park,” and to establish colonies across the vastness of the astral expanse.
If not entirely disingenuous, the endless braying of impending climate disaster has found its pons asinorum in the heavenly bourne of Bezos, Branson, and Musk et al. Most of the Cassandrist predictions have fallen flat. But shouldn’t anyone taking the doom mongering seriously appreciate, indeed encourage, climate change mitigation efforts to be accompanied by projects laying the foundation for mankind’s escape, if necessary?
What’s the Alternative?
Government space programs don’t leave much for admonishers to point to. As Federal debt levels have soared, increased scrutiny of US agencies and programs has revealed that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is as subject to the same spendthrift tendencies as every other tax-supported state enterprise. As a Purdue University study (one of many) summarizes,
An outgrowth of [the general tendency toward] fiscal profligacy is the presence of wasteful and duplicative programs within NASA that prevent this agency from achieving its space science and human spaceflight objectives. These programs occur due to mismanagement of these programs by NASA and from creation of these programs by the US Congress and congressional committees. This occurs because congressional appropriators tend to be more concerned with economically enhancing their states and districts and promoting their reelections instead of providing effectively targeted funding and oversight of their programs to ensure they meet national space policy goals and provide tangible value for taxpayers.
The report goes on to cite “multifaceted waste and duplication,” “unused and ineffectively used facilities” and specific programs including the Constellation/Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), the James Webb Space Telescope, as emblematic of the squandering. Space agencies losing taxpayer support and being taken up by private sources is a step in the right direction.
Perhaps the visceral disdain for the recent feats of Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX stems from the unwelcome acknowledgment that at a fraction of the expense and waste of bureaucratic state agencies, billionaires are pushing the human race a step closer to a stellar future. Inequality dogma has increasing numbers of Americans in its grasp, and busybodies eager to dictate how strangers should spend their money are rarely in short supply. Expecting public magnanimity was probably foolish.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Group owns some 400 companies with over 70,000 employees in businesses ranging from retail and insurance to healthcare, radio, travel, and beyond. Jeff Bezos’ Amazon employs almost 1 million people and has been delivering goods and services at incrementally lower prices, with progressively better service and faster delivery times, over the course of two decades. What these individuals and others like them have already done would be far and away enough to be appreciative of. That they are now choosing, voluntarily, to funnel part of their considerable wealth into space travel for the benefit of all of humanity is an extraordinary turn.
Private space programs are commercial endeavors in the short term, philanthropy over the long term. Philanthropy, moreover, of an order of magnitude higher and further reaching than anything undertaken to date. For many people, understandably, the dimensions of these efforts defy full appreciation. Detractors of firms like Amazon, Virgin Group, and others are often unironically among their longest and most enthusiastic customers. Over the vast reach of time, the paths being forged by these pioneers may ferry the naysayers’ ancestors into the cosmos, whether for distraction, exploration, or survival.