I must confess, I am conflicted about this.
Richard Branson made a suborbital flight in his own spaceship. Elon Musk is talking about going further. Together with Jeff Bezos, private space flight is a real thing and it’s getting realer.
Make all the jokes you want about wealthy people spending absurd amounts of money to book passage on one of these in the near future, but the fact that it’s happening at all leaves me a bit gobsmacked. Would I rather this had been achieved by the government? Probably. But would I rather have not seen it achieved at all? Absolutely not.
I’m going to be fairly unapologetic about this. Going to space was the one thing I have been consistently dreaming about since I can remember. (And no, I don’t personally feel the need to Go There myself, just so long as We get there.) As a kid being unable to get enough science fiction, aware eventually that the Real World was lagging behind the dreams I held dear, any endeavor that came along to advance that purpose I welcomed. I thought the whole moonshot thing in the Sixties was conceptually cool but awkward and dull in execution. The X-15 project was well on its way to building an actual spaceship, but that would have required considerably more funding which Congress was unwilling to dole out, but we definitely needed missiles (we thought) to counter Russia and Kennedy was (we forget) a fervent Cold Warrior. But we Got There.
And then turned our back on it. Even then the detractors were hammering away at the perceived waste of spending money to send people to the moon instead of feeding the hungry. That tension is still at hand and it is certainly based on legitimate concerns.
My problem with it has always been, Why is this an either/or question? We should have been doing something about poverty, yes, but we should also go to the moon. And Mars and the Jovians and onward.
Because without Big Dreams, the rest is just…
Not pointless, but once we have solved the problems of poverty and fed everyone and seen to social justice, what next?
This is not a First World question. Every vital culture has a Big Dream, a set of stories if nothing else that inject transcendence into their lives.
The problem is, solving problems never happens in a logical order.
So while I understand the cries of frustration (why are these Billionaires doing this instead of—?) I can’t quite condemn the quest. As far as I’m concerned, this may be the one truly legitimate thing any of them could do with all that money (that they would do). As long as we have billionaires, I would rather they build a significant part of the future with it. Going to space is the Big Dream of my childhood, and if we can’t elect representatives who will fund it, then let’s not stop these guys. It’s not like the things they achieve will be one-shots that no one else will ever get to do. The point of all this is to open that so-called Final Frontier, which will produce jobs, sure, but will also feed the need for Big Dreams and Wider Vistas and, ridiculous as it may sound to some, we ain’t gonna create the Star Trek world unless we Get There.
So, yeah. I’m conflicted. I hate that it’s These Guys, but I don’t hate that they’re doing it. When I watched that single-stage rocket actually land, my ten-year-old heart pounded in excitement. Yes! Yes! Yes! And that tech and those tools, they’ll remain when Musk is dust.
But let us get over this binary nonsense of either/or. There is no reason we can’t have both. There are plenty of reasons we have to have both. Tax them, for pity’s sake. Even a hefty tax will leave them with the resources to do this thing. Impose a community profit-share on them. There are ways of achieving that.
But I’m not going to beat up on them for doing something ultimately very cool for the time being.
That’s how I feel.