, October 25, 2021

Billionaires in space: it isn’t a waste of money, and this is why


  •   3 min reads
Billionaires in space: it isn’t a waste of money, and this is why

Billionaires are venturing into space; cynics say the money would be better spent on reducing poverty, but they are wrong, and this is why.

“Those who attack space maybe don’t realise that space represents hope for so many people,” Tweeted Elon Musk

Not everyone agrees. Richard Branson won the race to become the first billionaire in space,  but a jubilant Jeff Bezos probably wasn't worried about coming second.

It was my 'bestest' day ever, suggested Bezos, who went on to thank Amazon employees and staff.

Some people seem determined to spoil Bezos' best day, by talking about how poorly paid Amazon  employees probably gained small comfort from Bezos's words

Who knows, maybe Bezos enjoyed a kind of Road to Space Damascus moment, and has returned to Earth determined to do a Dan Pink and cut wages of all the highly paid executives at Amazon and give everyone else a pay rise

But is the current space programme really a waste of money, given the innovations that may result,  and should we be grateful to billionaires for their pioneering ways, which could create benefits for humanity in the near future?

Rockets are not suitable for the environment. A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket emitted more “carbon dioxide in a few minutes than an average car would in more than two centuries,” says the Los Angeles Times.

You have to feel sorry for billionaires. Strike that; you have to feel sorry for anyone worth more than $100 million. What can they spend their money on?

Space comes to the rescue; at last, Jeff, Richard and Elon have something to do with their money— besides paying tax.

But suppose the money was spent on battling climate change or alleviating poverty instead.

The benefit

When Pandora’s box was opened, after releasing all the evils into the world, all that was left was hope.

And whilst climate change and poverty fighters say the space programmes are evil, Musk talks about them providing hope.

He argues that humanity needs a plan B.

But there is another argument, and this argument suggests investments into space provide a means for fighting climate change and eliminating poverty.

Why is that?

Consider the innovations that resulted from the NASA Space Programmes.

Among the benefits: solar power was given the injection it needed to advance. If there had been no NASA, maybe there would be no renewables revolution and no hope of fighting climate change.

But consider the list of technologies that were either created or boosted by investment into space travel:

  • Artificial limbs
  • Light-editing diodes in medical therapies
  • 3D food printing
  • Aircraft anti-icing
  • Landmine removal
  • Firefighting equipment
  • Shock absorbers for buildings
  • Water purification

…the list goes on and on.

Markets don’t have all the answers

Economic theory — some theory, anyway — suggests that the markets can do it all; that if something is a good idea, the markets will realise this.

But this is not true. The markets have no vision and are lousy at pricing long term effects of innovation.

That is why the human genome project, which eventually helped researchers find vaccines for Covid, was funded by governments.

The only time the markets get close to getting it right is when they go mad and create bubbles, like in the late 1990s with dotcoms or the late 19th century, with railroads.

This is why innovation often follows a major war — that is not suggesting war is a good thing, but maybe spending on space is.

Does this mean billionaires are good?

So is inequality a good thing?

We can thank billionaires and maybe future space tourists who have more money than they know what to do with innovations resulting from the space programme.

For that matter, can we thank wealthy individuals for buying Tesla vehicles when they weren’t really economic, enabling the car to gain scale, fall in price, helping create an electric vehicle revolution?

The idea is not new.  Maybe we can thank the Medici in Renaissance Florence for finding Michelangelo, Raphael, and all the other artists who weren’t teenage ninja turtles.

Should we thank the 15th Century equivalent of billionaires for Renaissance art?

Maybe then extreme inequality is a good thing because it funds innovation and art for posterity.

But surely, there must be a better way.

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