On July 20, moments after arriving back on the Earth’s surface, former Amazon CEO and co-founder Jeff Bezos was eager to speak about his aerospace firm Blue Origin’s maiden voyage to suborbital space.
“It’s this teensy thing we need to protect,” said Bezos, the world’s richest man, of our atmosphere to Bloomberg’s Emily Chang. The way to do it, in his estimation? “Move all heavy industry, all polluting industry out into space.”
It may sound like the trip changed Bezos’ tune if he’s talking about saving the “fragile, beautiful” planet, a premise diametrically opposed to Amazon’s excessive cargo shipping and truck fleet, but his true motive is clear.
Bezos, and all of his fellow billionaires toying with space ventures, are trying to turn a profit on space. We shouldn’t let them so easily.
The feeling one gets when launched into space to see our little blue marble in full scope is so life-changing that it has a name: the overview effect. Seeing the whole of the Earth wading in the endless black ocean of space removes any notions of separation between humanity, and borders and nations disappear in the mind.
Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut and first man to orbit the Earth, and Michael Collins, the American astronaut who landed on the moon with Apollo 11, both felt the overview effect when they returned. Two men, sent to assert the economic and cultural dominance of their respective countries, forgot all about the goal of their mission up there, even if only for a moment.
Bezos’ immediate rush to tell reporters about his ambitious, hair-brained plans to pollute our atmosphere is telling. No enlightened soliloquy or pensive wisdom — just a distraction from realistic or timely climate solutions.
I am not averse to innovation or someone who thinks because we have problems on the ground that we shouldn’t focus on the stars, but some of the greatest human achievements have come as a result of space travel. We have government institutions to thank for that, not the private sector.
Maybe you’re reading this column on your iPhone. It’s often said that you have the free market to thank for such a modern miracle, yet everything that makes it so miraculous, from GPS and WiFi to the battery and even the screen, was funded by the government or public research institutions. Some of it would not exist without the simultaneous investments in space travel.
When businesses or corporations try to innovate technology, “expensive, uncertain long-term research is inevitably harder and harder to justify,” says economist Rob Larson. That the Internet and mobile tech "rose from the academic and military research settings” should surprise no one.
Jeff Bezos must recognize this since Blue Origin made an ultimately unsuccessful bid to Congress for funding. In May, the Senate was willing to “hand over $10 billion to NASA — money that most likely would go” to the Kent, Washington-based company. Even the richest man alive can’t seem to scrounge the pennies together to bankroll his rockets.
Maybe he just hesitates to waste money on something that isn’t likely to pay off in the short term, and honestly? That's a fine conclusion. Space travel is possibly our species’ greatest feat. It should not be beholden to quarterly reports.
Bezos, as well as Virgin Group’s Richard Branson, hope to make some money back in their own space race with space tourism. Branson hopes to fly around 400 flights a year and sell tickets only the world’s richest can buy. Any cheaper would make for no return on investment.
Unlike research missions, space tourism has no long-term benefit to society in the form of new tech or consumer products. It’s early to determine the unnecessary contribution this will make to global warming, but Eloise Marais of Popular Science writes that Bezos, Branson and Elon Musk of SpaceX running “hundreds of spaceflights a year would emit more greenhouse gases than some major power plants.”
If there are any climate change solutions to be gleaned from space research — as Bezos alluded to in his post-flight interview — then let our public universities and governments try their hand at it so we’re not preoccupied by the profit motive.
When NASA was at its peak half a century ago, the Apollo program created 400,000 jobs, revolutionized water purification and eased the Cold War detente with the Apollo-Soyuz handshake. Over half a billion people watched Apollo 11 on TV, and — full disclosure — did so in part thanks to my grandfather Ken Langdon Sr., who worked on the slow-scan television cameras onboard the vessel at RCA.
Maybe it's nostalgia for a foregone era of exploration or even my personal bias, but the space age was great because the bill came due to all of us, not a handful of rich guys. The whole world was rooting for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. It’s harder rooting for the man whose employees urinate in water bottles at work — their low wages contributing to the exorbitant cash going into Blue Origin.
I believe we can do more than one thing. We can try our best to mitigate climate change and fund beneficial space missions. Instead of giving that $10 billion to NASA to hand off to Bezos, just let NASA hold onto it and see what they can do. Let’s not leave this to men who have so much wealth that they answer to nothing but more of it.