What Space Billionaires Cost Us

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S1: You see the earth from space that changes you, changes your relationship. On Monday, I watched this video on Instagram.

S2: I want to go on this flight because it’s the thing I wanted to do all my life.

S1: That’s Jeff Bezos. And the video is from his account. It’s slickly produced, lots of camera angles, shots of the atmosphere. There’s a picture of Bezos as a child next to a model rocket with USA painted on the side. And the point of this video is to announce the Bezos will be on board the first human space flight that is rocket company Blue Origin is taking on July 20th. That’s the anniversary of the moon landing. In case you missed that part. And I was curious when I got astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz on the line what they thought about this whole announcement.

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S3: I view it as a very natural outcome. You know, I think if you were going to write the headline right, it would be like Billionaire builds rocket wishes to ride.

S1: Rocket Lucianne works with the Adler Planetarium and is a co-founder of the Just Space Alliance, which advocates for a more inclusive vision of space

S3: in the sort of framework in which Jeff Bezos has the means to like, build himself a mid-life crisis. Sportscar to space. Of course he wants to go to space.

S1: It’s not just Bezos Elon Musk has a space company. So does Richard Branson. You know, there’s this question that I’ve wondered for a long time that my producers and I actually were tossing around even before the show got started, which was basically why do all the rich guys want to go to space?

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S3: I think that is probably different for different rich guys. You know, I think you could probably name cultural influences. A lot of the people that we’re talking about, you know, Jeff, Bezos in particular, come out of wealth that is created on technology. Right. And a lot of people who are interested in technology or work in technological fields are also deeply steeped in often science fiction, inspired by a lot of the pop culture narratives that we have about technology making the future better. You know, technology like letting us do things like go into space. I can’t obviously know the minds and hearts of space billionaires, but I will say that it’s not tremendously surprising to me at least, that they would want to go to space.

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S1: But as they do and as their private companies take on such prominent roles in space exploration, does it change who space is for? Today on the show, Lucianne on how the billionaire space race risks leaving the rest of us behind. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to what next TBD, a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stick with us. I was a kid in the 1980s, I grew up kind of thinking about the shuttle program, being very aware of it, and space to me was something that the government did. And I think that was definitely the popular understanding from really the 60s and the Apollo program until relatively recently. And I wonder if you think that understanding is correct.

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S3: It is true that all of our go into space has always been kind of through government efforts, whether it was through NASA’s space program or through the Department of Defense’s space program. Right. But it it actually is also true that space has always been a public private partnership. So from the very inception of the space program, which was not Apollo, the original space program was for surveillance. And a lot of that was private industry partnering with the CIA to do development of surveillance satellites. What I I think is different about Blue Origin and SpaceX and some of the new space companies that have come out now is not that it is unusual to have private companies be involved in space. I think that those companies are interested in attaining a greater degree of autonomy than some of the traditional defense contractors. There’s this kind of marketing narrative that I think has arisen that they are kind of the next generation space program and that they will be going to space independently. But there’s no business model for them going to space independently, like there is money in them getting contracts from the government to go to space.

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S1: So the money is coming from NASA, basically, yes.

S3: Yeah, the money is coming from NASA.

S1: Yeah. I went back and looked up the first U.S. licensed commercial orbital launch and it was nineteen eighty nine and it was McDonnell Douglas. You know, it’s like people were talking about McDonnell Douglas in the way that people talk about SpaceX now. Is it just a triumph of branding?

S3: Yeah, I would say that, you know, defense contractors of the past, in part because a lot of those aerospace companies obviously literally couldn’t put out a marketing campaign about what they are doing if they wanted to. I think that there’s a fundamentally different approach where new space companies have often sought to control the narrative about their own activities and have very well developed marketing strategies and products, even just some of the visualizations that have come out of new space companies in the past couple of years that are really intended to shape public opinion on what their activities are. And so in that sense, a lot of the popular understanding of their position is shaped by those marketing narratives, as opposed to the fact that they’re vying for NASA contracts.

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S1: These contracts with NASA are not for flashier ideas like Mars colonization, but for things that are much more practical and lucrative.

S3: Most of the the larger companies that you you see in the news, you know, whether it’s SpaceX or Blue Origin, are in the rocket business. And that is motivated by the fact that, you know, if you make rockets, you can not only work with NASA, you can also work with commercial industry to launch satellites, et cetera. There’s all kinds of things that go to space that have a lot to do with, you know, being able to operate the things that we rely on here on Earth and not anything to do with, like, space exploration per say.

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S1: What does NASA get out of this?

S3: NASA’s always interested in being able to access space more inexpensively, launching things into space is very, very costly. And, you know, particularly if you don’t have reusable rockets, it requires a lot of waste. It requires you to build a new thing every single time. And so from NASA’s point of view, right, a lot of the work that NASA does is not only developing rockets, but also developing things like Mars rovers or, you know, like missions that go into the deep solar system or orbit around some of these more distant planets, space telescopes, et cetera. Even telescopes that observe the Earth and study our climate. Getting those things into space does cost money and is kind of like the least exciting part of what of what you can do. I mean, with no offense to the folks who work on launch systems for NASA, I’m betraying my. But it’s not like

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S1: people like you geek out over.

S3: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I’m definitely betraying my personal bias as an astronomer that uses space telescopes that I think the space telescopes and the missions, other planets are the cool part. And so getting them up there is hard and expensive. And so I think the reasoning is that if you can make that less expensive and somebody else takes on the risk, if you can contract that out, then that’s beneficial to NASA.

S1: In some ways, what these private space companies are doing can seem small. But Lucianne is noted that the process of going to space is an expansive one. It involves thousands of people and it’s a process that starts here on Earth. So when you have discussions and plans and lots of jobs, all of that can start to influence research and exploration.

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S3: If you can make it less expensive and more sustainable to go to space and to send, you know, telescopes to space, for example, then that’s great. It doesn’t, I think, change what we are doing in space. However, I will say that if you look at some of the more far flung ideas about what humans could be doing in space, so that could be mining in space, it could be humans living on the surface of another world. All of those ideas, it doesn’t take very much for those plans to start conflicting with some of the goals that I think have characterized space exploration for a long time. If you imagine that what you would like to do is live on Mars in order to explore Mars, in order to understand, for example, whether, you know, this one of our nearest neighbour planets has ever had life on it or whether life exists there today, then the view that you might have of people going to Mars and living there for however long would probably be kind of different than if your goal was to establish a city on Mars, for example.

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S1: Yeah, when I think about the sort of billionaire mentality part of this, you are making me think of Elon Musk going on The Stephen Colbert Late Show several years ago saying he wanted to drop thermonuclear weapons on Mars to warm it up

S4: the first way has dropped the nuclear weapons over the poles. You’re a supervillain. That’s what a super villain does.

S1: Yeah. Look, yes, this is this sort of cartoonish super villain thing to say, but it does feel kind of weirdly instructive in a way that that one person who has outsize influence can have that that moment kind of carry over into a series of conversations about what it would look like to try to warm up Mars to the degree that might make it habitable for humans. I mean, I wonder, as someone who has written and thought a lot about Mars, you must have just been like, oh, my God.

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S3: Yeah. I mean, all of the space billionaires that we are talking about are recycling ideas that have existed in science fiction for a very long time. These are not like original views of what a space future could look like. They’re not even particularly creative twists on any of these ideas. The idea of terraforming like transforming Mars into a place that is more habitable for human beings, has been out there for ages, including ethical debates about it. So I really wish that people would bring some attention to the lessons that we can learn of our own planet in this regard. You know, planets are systems. They’re not empty swimming pools that you can just refill with a hose.

S1: After the break, how to keep the dream of space for everyone. This is what next TBD and today we’re talking about why so many billionaires want to go to space and what that means for the rest of us with astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz, it can be hard, I think, to listen to conversations about nukes in space or cities on Mars and pass out what is bluster, what is fantasy and what is actually possible or likely to happen. Where do you think then is a reasonable place for. Your average citizen to understand. How much influence these men have over space policy today and not get carried away by those loud statements?

S3: I always like to start by reminding everyone that there are fundamental differences between private and public space exploration, you can buy like clothing, for example, that has prince of space on it. In some cases that’s those are illustrations. But in many cases, those are actually data from the Hubble Space Telescope. The reason that they can be printed on a pair of sneakers, you know, address a backpack, whatever, is that you own that data. You paid for it for me. The tax coffee. Yes. You, the taxpayer, have paid for data from the Hubble Space Telescope and you own it. That is not the case. If the data comes solely from a private company. Right. If your access to space, you know, with like little bunny air quotes around access, meaning not necessarily just going there, but like being able to see what space looks like to learn about it. If that’s controlled solely by private interests, then that access has monetary value and will not be given away for free. Because of that, I think it bears remembering that the project of space is something that is human and that is shared between humans on Earth, regardless of whether they are billionaires or not.

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S1: It does make me wonder who is space for, which is one of the questions you’re asking, but then also, you know, when you think about the American narrative around space, it has never been a place for everyone. The original Mercury astronauts were a group of white male test pilots. And when I think back to our collective understanding of that era, yes, it was something shared in the national imagination, but in a very narrow way. I wonder how you think. Or whether you think it’s possible to make space more inclusive, even as it has never been truly inclusive.

S3: Yeah, that’s another great question. I think it’s important to recognize that the exclusivity of space as a project, as like a workplace that, you know, people have taken part in, you know, here in the United States and elsewhere around the world that those exclusionary practices are actively enforced and created. To use the examples that you just brought up, the Mercury program didn’t originally have being a fighter pilot as its criteria. Right. They actually interviewed women as well as men. And the women actually performed better on a number of the tests than the male candidates did. And so, you know, when we look back in time, even just at these historical examples of exclusionary spaces, you can see sort of like the way the goalposts were moved in order to make them more in line with the kinds of exclusionary practices that were considered acceptable.

S1: One response to that history of exclusivity, as contests for civilians to get to go to space and to civilians recently won seats on the inspiration for which is a space mission set for September, also backed by yet another billionaire, Gjerde Eisenman. And yes, these two regular people are going to get to go. But Lucianne says these kind of things aren’t really that democratic,

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S3: something that is sort of ironic about a lot of the focus on private space companies and in particular, like Jeff Bezos going to space or the recent inspiration for contest to have like a civilian crew of people going to space is that it often gets framed as making space more accessible. And the other the other phrase that gets used a lot is like democratizing access to space. But it again sort of falls apart if you touch it with just the thinking that, you know, billionaire is being able to build their own space infrastructure and then ride it into space is not making space more accessible for anyone except for billionaires. It ultimately still poses billionaires and the companies they run as the gatekeepers for who gets to go to space.

S1: You have a newsletter which is the delightful name, not not rocket science. And and there’s a bit that you wrote recently that stuck with me, which is space has always been a proxy for our dreams about the future. It represents possibilities, though. What those possibilities look like in detail is inevitably shaped by the worldview of whoever is doing the dreaming. How much does the dreaming of space billionaires change our dreams about the future, or does it

S3: much like any sort of major platform that puts forward these ideas or images about what the future looks like? Those have the power to influence us, but we also have the ability to interrogate those things. So I often really like this image that SpaceX put out of like a Mars settlement or city in which there is just a bunch of buildings and like some rocket ports and like everything is sort of all over the place. And it looks like sprawl, you know, it just looks like suburban sprawl, like all of the the buildings don’t relate to each other. They all look kind of different. There’s no common spaces to be seen. You know, I think it’s easy to let some of these visions go by and be like, oh, yeah, that’s what a city on the surface of Mars looks like. But no, not necessarily what a cities look like. You know, here, what makes cities livable and conducive to, like human flourishing here, I think is a question that we can ask. And then what would that look like if we were to build it in a in a different place? We have just as much business interrogating those ideas about science fiction narratives and space as we do asking questions about them here on Earth.

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S1: Lucianne Walkowicz, thank you very much.

S3: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

S1: Lucianne Walkowicz is an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium and a founder of the Just Space Alliance. All right. That is our show for today. TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks and this week were edited by Tony Bosch and Alicia Montgomery. TBD is part of the larger What Next family. And it’s also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. And I want to recommend that you listen to Thursday’s episode of What Next? Mary talked with Democratic Congressman Conor Lamb about his evolution from kind of reliable compromiser to someone who wants to blow up the filibuster. Mary will be back in New York on Monday. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.