Remembering the dream in the age of a billionaire space race

It’s 52 years this week since the first moon landing. For all the politics shrouding Apollo, it captured a dream: the idea that humanity could – if it wanted – conquer any challenge, no matter how difficult. And, back in the 1960s, that moon landing was really difficult. That dream faltered, but now there’s a new space race under way. One between billionaires who, it seems, are more eager to pour their money into expensive hardware than find solutions for the social problems that the accumulation of those billions has bestowed on the world.

Based on the flood of infantile dick jokes and dildo memes that appeared on social media after Bezos’ brief spaceflight on 20 July, that image the obscenely mega-rich wasting money on space playthings at a time when wealth inequities are making life hard for the majority is pretty widespread. With one ten-minute hop in a vehicle that – let’s face it – does look a lot like a gentleman’s – er – apparatus, Bezos, as one commentator remarked, ‘captured everything that is wrong’ with billionaires buying their way into space. In short, it was a public-relations disaster of the highest order, an act that completely mis-read the current mood of society, worldwide.

That said, to me it’s misleading to lump all the space-players together. Richard Branson is an old-school billionaire – he made his money the hard way, largely before the age of freed-up money markets, social media and the dot-com boom. The Virgin Galactic spaceplane, furthermore, is technically innovative – more so, in many respects, than Bezos’ capsule, which uses technologies well known since the 1960s. Bezos though, is a new-style billionaire whose wealth has been supercharged by the structures of the neo-liberal economies that emerged during the 1980s and which gained pace in the 1990s. That return sets Bezos’ wealth about two orders of magnitude above that of Branson. And that wealth could – as Bill Gates has shown us – be directly turned to humanitarian benefit. But it hasn’t.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, 20 July 1969. The photo is from a 16mm camera mounted on the Lunar Module. NASA, public domain.

Now, sure, there’s a ‘market’ for satellite launchers, even for spacecraft that can supply the international space station. For the super-rich, space tourism will become a reality. But that doesn’t benefit the majority, and I doubt there will be the massive flow-back benefit that we saw with Apollo.

That flow-back of Apollo – the ‘spinoffs’ – was the real return of the dream. It was colossal, and it came about because Apollo was so challenging in every way. Whole technologies had to be invented from scratch. Everything from mass-produced silicon chips to fireproof spacesuits to fly-by-wire systems, image-enhancing software and more. It seems fairly clear in hindsight that the modern world – where we take personal computing power and the internet for granted – is only possible because the microprocessor industry got a kick-start from the Apollo programme. Microprocessors were already on their way in the 1960s on the back of defence requirements, but the need for them in the Apollo programme was so huge that the industry effectively sprang into life on the back of it, including developing efficient means of mass-producing them. And that’s without considering the software developed for the moon landings which – among other things – showed that fly-by-wire was practical and safe.

Other developments include – but aren’t limited to – cordless drills, cheap and accurate quartz clocks, cordless vacuum cleaners (‘Dustbuster’), implantable defibrillators, fireproof suits for fire-fighting, digital imaging analysis technology now used in MRI and CAT scanners, mylar insulating foil, and a system for precisely delivering medication (such as insulin) in exact doses – which apparently had its origins in the propellant-control systems of the Saturn V booster. I expect all of these technologies would doubtless have emerged sooner or later, but they came about when they did because of Apollo. To me, the medical and quality-of-life outcomes alone seem to have been worth it, quite apart from the ubiquity of the silicon chip and its pivotal place in the world we know today.

That’s something the billionaires – despite the many engineering challenges their rockets face – don’t have to do. All those technologies already exist. The new R&D investment is more focused, reducing the chance for serendipitous outcomes.

What worries me more is that the dream that drove Apollo really did take humanity forward, for all the reasons I’ve given above. It produced returns that made the current world what it is, and did so perhaps a generation – maybe two – ahead of when those developments might otherwise have filtered through. The dream – the sense that humanity could meet any challenge, no matter the scale or difficulty – is worthy. It does not necessarily mean going into space: it means embracing the dream. A sense of hope. A sense of faith in humanity. And we need such a dream, especially now, for humanity is facing a grave crisis on many levels. In the 1960s, Apollo became one focus of that dream, and – for a few brief, heady years – the space race captured public imagination. And gave us the modern world.

Can the billionaires engage the current social zeitgeist today, with their rockets? Given the near-universal criticism of Bezos for his performance, I doubt it. A disempowered, hungry world is too cynical to buy dreams where the rich play with their space todgers while the rest of humanity suffers.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021


6 thoughts on “Remembering the dream in the age of a billionaire space race

  1. It’s a hollow achievement, born out of hubris and a really quite disturbing level of wealth. I think of NASA and I think genius. With Bezos it’s just an overprivileged geezer showing off.

    What’s telling is Bezos said he couldn’t think of any other way to spend that money, so Amazon had to go into space. I was hard pushed to find anyone celebrating these recent space trips.

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    1. The space billionaire flights really are vanity displays. If Bezos had established proper working conditions and proper wages for Amazon employees, had shown some signs of philanthropy (such as trying to eliminate malaria, composting toilets for Africa, funding vaccine research, etc) and THEN put a few spare billion into building his Space Todger – well, maybe. As it stands it’s merely confirmed what we already knew was wrong with a world where neo-liberal socioeconomic structures have been left to run for a couple of generations. Ouch.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Well said, Matthew! The technological breakthroughs that have given rise to the tech we all enjoy today happened close to 50 years ago. 50! We need a new dream, perhaps one that’s closer to home and doesn’t include turning the only planet we have into a garbage heap. I don’t see any of those billionaires putting their hands up for that.

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    1. Precisely! I sometimes wonder if an ‘Apollo-style’ push for Mars would produce very much the tech spinoffs that the world needs? After all, things would need to be solved such as how to run a closed environment for years (a model for Earth, perhaps), the medical challenges of prolonged zero-g, which include major disruption of eyeball shape and hence loss of visual acuity (spinoff for those needing glasses on Earth?), and so forth. Even such things as deflecting the high-radiation space environment (possible with a suitable magnetic field) might produce discovery spinoffs that we don’t expect. Another leap forward, serendipitously. Perhaps.

      On the other hand, Earth’s problems are so dire now – and so obvious – that it might be better to pour that sort of money directly into resolutions. What worries me is that in these late-day neo-liberal times, neither direct huge-scale spending on solving climate change, disease etc, nor an Apollo-style Mars effort, are politically acceptable… and it’s from politicians, ultimately, that the money for either has to come. Ugh.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It would be wonderful to have another science renaissance via a Mars mission, but, as you say, we can’t really wait that long.
        We’re certainly in the middle of history now, aren’t we?

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  3. Thanks, Matthew. That’s a great post giving a good perspective on today’s space efforts.

    Not only are billionaires engaging in high level space-willy-waving, they are doing nothing to help solve the problems they (collectively) have created by undermining the respectability of public spending for public good across the world and undermining the whole concept of democracy – so that they can amass their obscene amounts of wealth.

    Surely today’s equivalent of the 1960’s space programme would be the re-greening of the earth, aiming to restore the atmosphere to CO2 levels that give stable climate, aiming to increase biodiversity and stop species extinctions in their track, aiming to green the deserts left by failed civilisations. Now that is a major challenge that will involve major new technologies to be developed.

    Where are the billionaires to put money into this project that addresses today’s real problems, rather than massaging their own egos, because at some point in time they got lucky and think they’re something special?.

    Yes, Bill Gates has set an example, although I’m swure he still has obscene amounts of money.

    Let’s face it, once you have a billion, what’s the point of any more?

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