On July 20, Amazon’s founder and chief executive officer Jeff Bezos is going to space. If you’re experiencing a bit of déjà vu, that’s probably because this isn’t the first time you’ve heard a billionaire going on about exploring space.
Billionaires in outer space
On July 20, Amazon’s founder and chief executive officer Jeff Bezos is going to space. Why, you might ask? According to him, “Ever since I was five years old, I’ve dreamed of traveling to space.” So, in other words, now that he can afford to, he just kinda wants to.
The flight will be the first taken by the New Shepard space shuttle – named in honor of the first American to go into space, Alan Shepard – and is part of Jeff Bezos’ space program, Blue Origin.
If you’re experiencing a bit of déjà vu, that’s probably because this isn’t the first time you’ve heard a billionaire going on about exploring space.
In February of 2018, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk decided to send a Tesla Roadster to space, only for it to veer off of its intended trajectory toward Mars and ultimately end up in the asteroid belt.
And Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is promising to take customers on suborbital flights in space for nothing more than the view. More than 600 tickets have already been sold for these kinds of flights, with the price being more than US$200,000.
Who are the companies and individuals involved in space exploration?
Even though the United States is spending less on space exploration than it used to, these billionaires have more than made up for it and their companies now account for around 80% of the US$424 billion industry.
With that said, the US government dedicated 0.48% of government spending toward the budget of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 2020, which equals around US$22.62 billion. That’s about a 5.3% increase from the previous year.
Previously, NASA was dependent on expensive Russian spacecraft to transport astronauts from the International Space Station but now that SpaceX and Blue Origin have appeared on the scene, these private American companies are being offered the opportunity to build key space infrastructure instead.
For example, in April of this year, SpaceX won a US$2.9 billion contract to build NASA’s next moon lander.
The partnership between the public and private sector here has also helped the US government in its race to dominate space against other countries such as China.
Why are billionaires so interested in space?
One of the reasons why billionaires seem to be interested in space, beyond claims of childhood awe, is in order to create a new form of energy production called space-based solar power.
Space-based solar power is essentially the same as solar power on the ground – you put up big solar panels to catch sunlight and turn it into energy we can use. But in space there’s the added step of beaming the electricity down to earth via lasers. What could ever go wrong with space lasers?
Space-based solar energy has some pretty big benefits compared to what exists currently. Not only is it more efficient than solar panels on the ground (because the solar energy doesn’t get dampened by the atmosphere), but the panels can also be in direct sunlight 24 hours a day (compared to the roughly 16 hours a day solar panels on the ground get on average).
The other big reason for going to space, according to people like Elon Musk, is that it would reduce the possibility of extinction of the human race.
“One [path] is that we stay on Earth forever and then there will be an inevitable extinction event,” said Musk. “The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilization, and a multiplanetary species.”
What does everyone think of space being used like this?
Some say that space exploration isn’t so great because it’s bad for the environment and that the costs of going to space could be put to better use elsewhere.
Space shuttle launches do produce a lot of carbon, but the truth is such launches are pretty rare compared to things like commercial plane flights, which also have large carbon footprints.
But the real environmental impact people tend to worry about is about what happens when human-made objects launched into space just get left there to become space debris. As you probably guessed, this can be a problem because if these objects don’t come hurtling back to Earth (like the Chinese space debris that fell into the Indian Ocean back in May), it can stay in orbit and cause problems (such as potential collisions) for other satellites and shuttles in space.
As for the cost, some argue that billionaire CEOs like Bezos and Musk – the two richest men on earth – should put more of their fortune into giving their workers pay increases or better benefits.
Both Amazon and Tesla, the billionaire’s companies, came under fire during the pandemic for not prioritizing employee safety and for trying to stifle the creation of unions by their employees.
But is there even a need to lead the space race?
Even though criticism of the idea exists, a Pew Research survey found that most Americans think it’s important for the country to lead the space race, with NASA being a vital player even though more private companies are popping up in space.
Out of the 2,541 respondents surveyed, about 72% say it’s essential for the US to continue to be a world leader in space exploration, while 80% say that NASA was a good investment for the country.
The top reasons those polled believe space exploration is important include climate monitoring (63%), asteroid monitoring to ensure objects didn’t crash into earth (62%) and scientific and space research (47%).
For governments, though, going to space now is a sign of who has the technological and economic prowess to invest in long-term space exploration.
The hunger to win among these governments is also at a new high and it isn’t like the 1960s where it was just Russia and the US. Countries such as India, Japan and China are all working hard to compete in space.
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