The Billionaire Space Race Is About Democracy, Not Tourism

Need not apply to NASA. Space is open to the public.

I’m not very old.

Born in 1974, I don’t remember the Apollo era. But everyone who does has a twinkle in their eye when they say they were “there during Apollo.” It was that special. The Apollo space program unified humans. It was us going farther than we had ever gone, not because it was easy, but because it was hard. It was humans leaving Earth to photograph our marble planet from outer space. And it was us landing on the moon. What a dream.

But Houston, we had a problem. Even though Apollo brought us together in the 1960s and beyond, until recently you couldn’t go to space unless NASA vetted you. Apollo had a long history of elite white guys and no one else was allowed in. Today women and people of color are eligible for NASA programs. But even with fair practices, thousands apply to be astronauts, and few get accepted.

That just changed. This year, private companies built spaceports in the desert and launched to space without NASA. They sent women, seniors, businesspeople, educators, artists, moviemakers, tourists, Captain Kirk, and a teenager. There was no law to prevent this.

SpaceX, a company run by billionaire Elon Musk, announced that now anyone can go to space. It is Musk’s dream to start a settlement on Mars. In September, SpaceX rented its rocketship to a private customer to raise money for charity. The event made history.

The paying billionaire invited three ordinary people to join him in space: a young woman with a leg prosthesis; a stocky, nerdy, middle-aged dad and husband; and a 51-year-old African American. Inspiration 4 went around Earth for three days and was filmed by Netflix, showing that cookie cutter NASA heroes are a thing of the past.

In July, spaceflight company Virgin Galactic made history too. Virgin’s plane left from private property in New Mexico and, once the plane reached the top of Earth’s sky, it launched a ship that flew to space. Passengers, who included billionaire Richard Branson, floated around for four minutes before feathering down to return home. It was as easy as riding in an airplane, but more expensive. A lot more expensive.

Billionaire and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is also making spaceships in the desert. He, too, is contributing to space democracy. He uses publicity stunts to advertise seats going for a quarter of a million dollars. After the Virgin launch, Bezos shot off in a weird Blue Origin rocket. He played with candy during his four minutes in space and said it was the “best day ever!”

Bezos took with him astronaut Wally Funk, who in the 1960s was canceled by NASA for being female. William Shatner followed. The 90-year old Star trek celebrity felt the Overview Effect, a psychological change that happens when humans see their home planet. Shatner said he never wants to forget the experience.

This tourism is the beginning of public access to space. Another company, Space Perspective, sells 6-hour trips for $125,000. During the ride, passengers view Earth from a space balloon capsule before splashing into Earth’s ocean. The price is high, but the space trip does not depend on NASA qualifications. For the first time ever, people can go to space without government say-so.

Much of the public does not approve of the billionaire space race, however. Critics think it is a waste of money. They argue that dollars spent on space could help people who suffer from hunger and poverty on Earth.

This is true, but it is a short-term view. Billionaires are using their money to widen access to space, which will help solve our biggest problems on Earth. Because space is open to startups, businesses are motivated to invest in solutions for extreme environments.

These inventions will be used for humans to survive climate change, and to feed and house Earth’s people. For example, Moon and Mars 3D habitat printing is used for homes in Latin America. Space tech grows food in the desert. Space water recycling serves drought populations. Mars oxygen generators will treat wildfire air pollution. Because billionaires spend their money on space, human life is made better.   

Like Apollo, this space race has the potential to unify humanity. But the era of exclusivity is over. Beginning this decade, people of all kinds will be allowed to explore space.

When I was a little girl, I thought only boys who lived in nice houses could be NASA astronauts. Now I believe I’ll go to space. It may not be today, but it will happen.

“When we look back in sixty years,” said private astronaut Glen de Vries before he launched with Shatner, “we will say 2021 was the year that space opened up.” Space business is booming. Save your money: as technology advances, off-Earth travel will be affordable soon.

Rebecca From Reno
Rebecca Schembri is a Social Science graduate student at Harvard University. Her concentration is in Space Diplomacy.
She is from Reno, Nevada, USA

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