The Case for Space Billionaires
Statistically, Americans love space. Anecdotally, they hate it when billionaires go there. Majorities of all parties, genders, and geographies tell pollsters they support U.S. missions to the moon and Mars, and three-quarters say that the effort to land the first men on the moon was worth it. But last year, when the big three spacefaring billionaires—Virgin’s Richard Branson, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Tesla’s Elon Musk—managed successful manned missions in rapid succession, Twitter (and Congress) were bursting with rage.
Every corner of the internet was filled with the same hot takes. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) made a choleric announcement, for example, that “it’s time to tax the billionaires” because “here on Earth, in the richest country on the planet, half our people live paycheck to paycheck, people are struggling to feed themselves, struggling to see a doctor—but hey, the richest guys in the world are off in outer space!” This tweet from a self-described anti-capitalist went viral: “I actually don’t think we’re angry enough about rich people going to space while the world burns.” Another Twitter user requested in poem form that “perhaps billionaires/Could solve problems on earth/Rather/than race to space/For their egos.” There were also an astonishingly large number of dick jokes.
But the case against space billionaires falls apart on closer scrutiny. At worst, the private space race is no more frivolous or wasteful than other, more mundane business, philanthropic, or government projects. At best, what began as a luxury pursuit opens a new frontier and kick-starts a new industry that will dramatically expand humanity’s prospects.
Let’s begin by addressing the most common and perhaps the most defensible objection—call it the “there are problems here on Earth” complaint. This is the idea that space travel is difficult and expensive, and that the resources billionaires are using to leave the planet should be used instead to improve life here first.
The concern makes intuitive sense, and it’s not a new argument. Even the Apollo program was rather unpopular in its early days—when government space ventures were the only game in town—with only 22 percent of Americans agreeing that there was a “great and urgent” need to get to the moon in 1962. Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 poem “Whitey on the Moon” laments the misuse of resources in the face of poverty and racial injustice (and complains about the taxes that take his “whole damn check” while he’s at it).
Money is fungible, so every dollar spent on space is, indeed, a dollar not spent elsewhere. But investments in the space sector total about $264 billion, according to Space Investment Quarterly, with the vast majority of that figure going toward satellites. Satellites tend not to elicit the kind of ire that still-rare private manned space travel inspires, perhaps because their utility to ordinary people for telecommunications and GPS is already well demonstrated. Though the falling price of putting up a satellite is closely intertwined with billionaire space ventures, we’ll set that spending aside. The roughly 115 companies involved in launch, including the billionaire boys’ space jaunts, represent a total investment of $25.9 billion. Not chump change, but also not enough to definitively end poverty, injustice, or other terrestrial troubles if the problem was really just simple lack of funds.
Embedded in the “problems here on Earth” complaint is the odd assumption that spending on space projects shows a lack of care about any other effort to improve humanity’s lot. In fact, the billionaires involved in the private space race have given far more money to charity than they have spent on space. Bezos gave $10 billion in 2020 alone to fight climate change and more recently donated $100 million to José Andrés, whose World Central Kitchen seeks to relieve global hunger. Tax disclosures from Elon Musk—who helps support Doctors Without Borders, educational charities, and environmental groups—reveal that he gave away 5 million Tesla shares last year, making him the second biggest charitable giver overall.
There also are plenty of major philanthropists who simply aren’t very interested in space, Bill Gates first among them. When interviewer James Corden asked him about his spacier billionaire brethren, Gates r
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