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.
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