So-called ‘space billionaires’ have received a lot of attention, and a lot of public ire this year. But much of the commentary on the subject misses the real point of space exploration.
Some commentators view Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and other private space escapades as nothing more than vanity projects, or wasteful escapism. Rather, these projects have two big upsides that are not always considered; the first is of a more practical nature, and the second is somewhat harder to pin down, though pivotal to the human experience.
The primary benefit of these private space missions is that every rocket launch generates an incredible amount of data that informs future space flight, and can also help improve technological capabilities here on earth. The more rockets that are launched, the better scientists understand how these technologies work, enabling them to recreate safe space transport more dependably in the future. Plus, many of these missions serve to launch important satellites into orbit, improving and maintaining the global positioning, information transmission, and security systems that we have come to rely on in everyday life, and at the highest levels of our government. Other missions too, like last week’s SpaceX mission that launched a satellite at an asteroid in order to understand our ability to affect the course of massive galactic bodies, are being done in partnership with NASA. SpaceX tweeted that the test is to “intentionally crash the DART spacecraft into an asteroid to see if that is an effective way to change its course, should an Earth-threatening asteroid be discovered in the future.” Partnerships like this one allow the government, and humanity as a whole, to reap the benefits of space exploration and experimentation without spending as much money on these programs.
There is also the argument that the money that billionaires use to fund their space exploration companies would be better spent on charity or expropriated from them via taxation to fund the preferred programs of whoever is making this argument. This ignores the fact that what these companies are doing is work that was performed (or not performed) by the government until quite recently. So under this logic, it would somehow be more equitable to use tax dollars taken from everyone to finance these projects than to simply allow those in the market who have the capacity and willingness to engage in the projects to handle them.
The other benefit of these projects is one that is somewhat harder to quantify, but that nonetheless deserves some attention. Human beings are naturally curious, and growing up watching rocket and space shuttle launches inspired several generations of scientists to pursue the field as children. There is a benefit to science in the nation watching major exploration accomplishments on TV. The children of today who watch the first all-civilian space flight, the first reusable rocket boosters, and Captain Kirk (William Shatner, at a shocking 90 years old) go to space may be inspired in the same way that their forebears were. A society that knows it can do big things and teaches its children to view themselves as capable of working wonders is bound to accomplish more in those fields. Those motivated individuals grow up to solve the big problems that lay ahead. There is a real value in doing things that inspire wonder. Achievements that allow us to glimpse the current extent of human potential are valuable if only then as inspirations. Space and space exploration have served this purpose since people first put a telescope to the night sky. Pretending as though space is only the fascination of the idle rich is deceptive at best.
Allowing private companies to engage in work that would otherwise be left to the government or be left undone benefits everyone. Technology improves, satellites are put into orbit, companies may make a profit, and tax dollars can be saved.