Billionaires in space

Not so rich up there

Branson vs. Bezos racing towards space - it’s no doubt an exciting spectacle. But little more than that. Despite being some of the richest billionaires on the planet, in outer space their money pales in comparison to that of states. If anyone is going to revolutionize space exploration, it won’t be rich individuals but countries, even small ones. And while billionaires can help with the aim of making space exploration more inclusive - not the sole privilege of China and the Unites States - it will be the addition of more countries that will ultimately lead to the democratization and preservation of space, argues Tony Milligan.


Space belongs to all of us. At least, that is the official position under international law. So, when Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos go toe-to-toe like 19th century prizefighters, slugging it out to see who gets there first, the conflict seems a little stuck in the past. Magnificent men, if not such young men, in flying machines. It is tempting to hope that they may somehow knock each other out, like characters in an old-timey film, without anyone coming to actual harm.

Jeff Bezos is younger than Richard Branson and has more money. His ambitions go higher. Bezos wants to get above the 100 km Karman Line, a boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and what sits beyond. The boundary is sub-orbital, so no one could stay there. It is also little arbitrary, a convenient fiction. Nature is not metric. Richard Branson has less money than Jeff, but still an awful lot. Billions, but not too many billions. After 20 years of work and stress to position Virgin Galactic for actual commercial flights, he has been as good as his word, putting his own body on the line, and going 53 miles up. Three miles higher than you need to go before the US Air Force calls you an astronaut.

None of this shows the technology is entirely safe. I would not step into it until it has been up and running, as a viable commercial operation, for at least five years. But for enthusiasts it may already be close enough to take the risk. People will, of course, die. There have already been deaths during testing and flight. Branson’s trip is the high point in a long process that has a much larger number of lows.

In terms of our human expansion into space, this does not mean much. It is an entertaining sideshow with some unusually bad optics, billionaires whatever it is that billionaires do.


In space, billionaires aren’t that rich        

In terms of our human expansion into space, this does not mean much. It is an entertaining sideshow with some unusually bad optics, billionaires whatever it is that billionaires do. But space costs too much even for Branson or Bezos to set the agenda on anything other than sub-orbital activity. Up in orbit, the big money gets even bigger. The International Space Station has cost a little less than the entire current fortune of Bezos. Eventually, it will cost more. Somewhere in the region of 40 Bransons, which is about $200bn in Earth currency. China’s new space station Tiangong, costs far less on paper, but is still a multiple of everything that Richard Branson owns. And the hidden costs are enormous. Once we go orbital, Branson falls away, Bezos is in the running but overshadowed by Elon Musk and SpaceX, which is more embedded with supply work for NASA.

Even so, the costs of space exploration are currently a barrier to too much influence by private individuals, even billionaires. But not so high that they amount to a great deal in terms of Earth GDP. Global space agency expenditure is still only around $82.5bn annually. That’s about three cents a day for each of us. A minimal tax burden which falls where it should fall, upon the more affluent parts of the world and, in the case of China, it doesn’t get in the way of largely successful but controversial programs to alleviate poverty.


Towards the democratization of space exploration

The upshot of all this is that a large number of states are already in a position to get involved in the orbital economy. The average monthly income in Nepal is now around $160, but it already has its first CubeSat and ambitious plans for the future. Propelled by a need for Earth monitoring after a devastating earthquake in 2015 which cost thousands of lives. Suborbital flight companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have always played to the ideal of inclusion, and the prospect that reduced costs will allow thousands of people from all sorts of backgrounds to go into space. Most eyes were on Branson for the flight on Sunday 11th July, but there were five other people in the cabin: three men and two women. One of them, Sirisha Bandla, is the second woman from India to go into space. And the first to come back again alive. Kalpana Chawla died in the Columbia Shuttle disaster in 2003.

In a world with better priorities, Bandla’s successful flight, or even the launch of the Nepalese satellite, NepaliSat-1 back in 2019, would have been bigger news than Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos slugging it out. At times, we seem to enjoy the spectacle of the familiar more than the substance of change. Especially if we can run some aging 20th century narratives about billionaires, who may or may not be acting in the interests of greater inclusion.

Yet across the space sector as a whole, the inclusion is real if tentative. When NASA’s Perseverance Rover touched down on Mars in February of this year, it arrived as part of a mission equipped with 50 Navajo terms for objects of interest. A list put together by Diné (Navajo) nation leaders along with Aaron Yazzie, an award winning Diné mechanical engineer, who happened to be on the NASA mission team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. These actions are small in the order of things. They are not going to usher in a new era of global equality, but they do point towards what is known as ‘the democratization of space’ as a reasonable aspiration. It is also an ambiguous aspiration.

For some, it means having a multiplicity of commercial interests, rather than a small number of monopolies. For others, it means having more nations involved, rather than three big launch states having control over who goes and who does not go. The democratization that people like myself would like to see is more multi-dimensional. It includes a multi-player commercial environment, and multiple states, but it also echoes Virgin Galactic rhetoric about the inclusion of people from all walks of life. As Sirisha Bandla puts it, “people from different backgrounds, different geographies, different communities”.


Preserving the extraterrestrial environment

Part of the rationale for this inclusivity is social justice in space. But part is about limiting environmental harms to irreplaceable sites that have a unique history and integrity all of their own. We would not flatten Uluru (Ayers Rock) or Bear Lodge (Devils Tower) in the Black Hills. We should not damage similarly unique structures elsewhere. Not here, not on the Moon or Mars. Yet the risks of environmental harm are growing.

We should not damage similarly unique structures elsewhere. Not here, not on the Moon or Mars. Yet the risks of environmental harm are growing.

Consider two scenarios. In the first, lunar presence is initially monopolized by the US, China and Russia. A few other nations, like India, Israel and the United Arab Emirates, periodically throw landers at the Moon with indifferent results. Later on, more viable technology spreads around, as costs are lowered. But the key strategic locations in places like the South Lunar Pole have all been commandeered. Late arrivers from smaller nations then compensate for their disadvantage by acting in ways that compromise lunar environmental protection. Unique surface features, shaped over billions of years, are lost. Gone forever. We convince ourselves that it is only rocks and regolith but suspect that future generations will be shocked about what we have taken away from them.

In the second scenario, inclusion of various sorts proceeds more rapidly. Space programs establish a growing presence on the Moon, and Mars is targeted for the late 2030s. The US and China have a race to plant flags and footprints, but the race does not go hot. Because there is more inclusion from the start, the problem of late arrivers is not so great. The pressures to compromise protected sites are reduced. Nobody has to say “We are from wealthier nations. We were here first and caused a good deal of damage. We realize that the Moon does not just belong to us, but to future generations as well. To protect it, we will now stop you, smaller nations and late arrivers, from acting as badly we have done.” Think of the similarities with climate change.

The point is a simple one. Eventually, there will be many more players than there are now. The pressures that this generates will be considerable. Pressures towards adding more space junk in orbit, pressures to reduce costs and show quicker returns, pressures upon the limited resources South polar region, the target of most current missions.

Building in as much inclusion as possible, which on a 21st century model can hardly avoid the inclusion for commercial interests, will result in fewer pressures to choose between the democratization of space or site protection. There will still be pressures. Inclusion will not make the surface of the Moon or of Mars, any larger. But a broader democratization of space may help to give us what we urgently need. Less of a prizefight, and more of a difficult negotiation.

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