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Space Race 2.0 & Other Plights of Extra-Terrestrial Billionaires

Human space exploration started around 64 years ago, on October 4, 1957, when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. A period of virulent hostility between the USSR and the United States was ignited, and the Cold War’s Space Race became a reality. Since the first time a satellite has been launched into the Earth’s atmosphere, astronauts have travelled to the moon, probes explored the solar system, and vital instruments have discovered planets and stars. At long last, humankind had the technology to learn about planet Earth and the vast expanse which lies beyond the imagination. In recent years, astronomers have grown increasingly curious about the possibility of life outside Earth’s borders. Unpiloted probes have travelled around the solar system and low earth orbit missions powered the human space exploration scenario. As of the past few years, rapid technological advancements of robotics and AI have redefined the space industry. Private funding and investment increased, and mankind has high hopes of venturing into space tourism.

The modern commerce sector has a newfound startup ecosystem with growing funding spanning across all industries, including space. Initiatives such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) certified commercial human spacecraft system by SpaceX last year is one example of many projects that are upcoming in recent years. The globe is entering a novel era of the commercialisation of space, geared towards generating profits from satellite launches and space tourism. This era, driven by private corporations such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origins, has been labelled by industry insiders as ‘NewSpace'. The pre-established the state-run industrial space sector is no longer the only player in town. The world is at a turning point in the history of space exploration and development – the cusp of a revolution, new industries are being conceived that use space in many unconventional ways.

During the up-and-coming onset space revolution, the public is quick to forget the misanthropic actions of the capitalist lords guiding the mission. Bezos, Musk, and others, the space billionaires, have little stake in the well-being of the majority of the population. Their space visions are designed for wealthy people like themselves, with little mention of where normal people would fit in. They’ve built their wealth on exploitation, and their visions of the future are not much more than an extension of their present actions. The space industry must be looked at with a critical eye; how space exploration is used as an excuse for violence must be examined, environmental degradation, and lack of welfare for people. Priorities and social ethics of space need to be evaluated. Though the pursuit is by its lonesome noble, space is under the gaze of corporate consumption.

From the end of the 1950s to the start of the 1980s, the Space Race dominated scientific thought around the world. Exacerbated by growing tensions between the American and Russian Cold War, the Space Race brought a variety of space technology into view, propelled by nationalistic rivalry. During most of the Space Race, the Soviets were considered to be ahead – holding the accolades of ‘first probe to reach the moon’, and ‘first spacecraft to head toward Venus’. All achievements of the countries were overshadowed, mere slideshows compared to the breadwinner of the Space Race: NASA’s Apollo program – NASA’s engineers embarked on a journey to place human footprints on the moon. After repeatedly failed missions over the course of the 1960s, NASA launched Apollo 11 in 1969, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. The event was momentous, and to many marked the end result of the Space Race – though there were missions following Apollo 11, the US triumphed after all.

The Space Race is viewed in the realm of astrophysics as a historical period of space innovation. However, the race didn’t exist in a vacuum detached from society. All agents in the Space Race were agents of the Cold War as well: the United States vs. the Soviet Union. Conquesting the Soviets was a tool of American hegemony. American Congressional legislation and presidential speeches in the nearly three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the “victory” of the American neoliberal form of capitalism, show support for the expansion of free-market principles into lower-Earth orbit and beyond.

Following the Space Race, a debate overtook America about the usage of rocket engineering. Conservatives saw the rockets as a tool for supporting the military, while others viewed rocketry as a potential application for civilian science and improving Americans’ lives. Regardless, every American, conservative or socialist, viewed victory in the Space Race from a nationalist standpoint. Space innovation was a sector of esoterics, intended for a narrow audience of American citizens. Otherwise, the space industry did not benefit anyone else in the world. Prestige was the motivator, as was the desire to spread capitalist ideals to Western Europe. During his “Space Challenge” speech in 1962, former President John F. Kennedy emphasised the importance of American “firsts” and achievements. He noted that we viewed space as a terrain to “conquer”, and that winning would bring the American liberal institutions a sense of superiority.

No longer is it the 20th century. The lingering uncertainty of COVID-19 and the day-to-day negative developments in the economy, environment, and society haunts us. During these transformative moments for humankind, unexpected harbingers of space exploration have arrived. Jeff Bezos, the third wealthiest man in the world, announced he would fly his space company, Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft on July 20 of this year. Nine days prior, Richard Branson, only the world’s 589th richest person this year according to the Atlantic, decided he would take an hour-long jaunt on his Virgin Galactic VSS Unity. Elon Musk, the owner of SpaceX, joined him. The three space musketeers can afford a total of almost $400 billion, reported by the Washington Post, towards space side hustles. Musk has expressed his desire for humans to transition into an “interplanetary species”. Critics have chided the billionaires endlessly, scrutinising their choices to expand the industry at a time of coronavirus recovery – where millions of people around the world struggle to pay for their daily expenses.

The United Nations (UN) released a report in July detailing the rise of widespread famines spreading to poor nations as a result of the pandemic. The report detailed 811 million people undernourished in 2020 alone. Not only are these ventures poor optics for the masses struggling with poverty, but they are also an attack on life. If the billionaires’ stocks being devoted towards space were instead utilised to alleviate others from poverty, the UN World Food Program estimates 41 million people would be rescued from starvation. The expenses to end world hunger are just $6 billion, incomparably lesser than the $400 billion space budget. Space is an open display of billionaire chauvinism, a game to assert dominance. While they claim the reason to be “expanding horizons”, the truth remains – space exploration serves to increase their net worth. An exhibit of capitalist excess and nothing more – a way to prove to the globe that they are superior.

The novel race for space, in many ways, mirrors the errors of the past as history repeats itself. During the time of the Cold War’s Space Race, ranking first signified the prestige of the US. Although the US already had a stock of technology, wealth, and influence as the world’s capitalist superpower, it clambered for more respect from Europeans. Between 1958 and 1983, 33 of the 38 NASA cooperative spacecraft projects were conducted with European entities, and 52 of 73 experiments with foreign principals involved Europeans. Indeed, Europe considered it imperative to avoid a "technology gap" with the United States and saw space as a primary technology generator. Ideological greed drove the US’s obsession to come out on top. Investing dollars and dollars into space exploration missions, the US proved to the world that they are the most forward-thinking. They’ve accomplished the most. Under these delusions of grandeur lay the the reality of the situation – people continuing to struggle with poverty, lack of equal rights, discrimination.

Similarly, today’s situation is entirely avoidable. Billion-dollar corporations already possess enough material wealth to keep going for a lifetime. Despite this universal truth, they invest more and more into worthless pursuits which no one approves of, and yet they continue to do so anyway – all to prove that they are #1. To their obedient followers, the promise of expanding past Earth is thrilling. They represent the Americans of the past, blind-sided and hopeful rather than being critical of charlatan “innovators”.

“Is anyone else alarmed that billionaires are having their own private space race while record-breaking heatwaves are sparking a ‘fire-breathing dragon of clouds’ and cooking sea creatures to death in their shells?”

Tweet from former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich

Climate change is widespread, rapid, intensifying. Scientists observe changes in the Earth’s climate in every region and across the entire climate system. Rocket launches do not contribute positively to the crisis – they have a hefty carbon footprint due to the burning of solid rocket fuels. Eloise Marais, an associate professor of physical geography at University College London, studies the environmental costs of the modern era of space exploration. She explains the emission of rocket launches to be increasing 5.6% a year, and they have already been running simulations for decades. 200-300 tonnes of carbon dioxide are split between 4 or so passengers, approximately the same amount needed for an international plane flight. According to the Guardian in July 2021, this would sum up to one to three tonnes of carbon dioxide for each passenger.

Though rocket launches are relatively infrequent, the high amount of gas needed to kickstart a rocket guarantees equal-footed competition with other emitters. Rocket emissions reach exactly into the upper atmosphere, staying for two to three years. Near the surface of the Earth, they release heat, adding ozone to the troposphere, where it acts as a greenhouse gas. The ozone layer in the stratosphere depletes from such fuels. Overall, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) decreed back in August 2021, emissions of carbon dioxide are one of the most noteworthy contributors to climate change. Sustained reduction of CO2 is required to limit and stabilise global temperatures by 20-30 years.

Carbon emissions aren’t all, though. A Center for Space Policy and Strategy likened the space emissions problem to space debris. Space debris encompasses natural meteoroids and artificial remains orbiting the Earth. As per data collected by the Malayala Manorama newspaper in November, approximately 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbit the earth. A proportion of the space junk in low Earth orbit will gradually lose altitude and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere; larger debris, however, can occasionally impact Earth and have detrimental effects on the environment. For example, debris from Russian Proton rockets, launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, litters the Altai region of eastern Siberia. This includes debris from old fuel tanks containing highly toxic fuel residue, unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH), a carcinogen that is detrimental to the well-being of living organisms. The density of such junk, increased by satellites and other spatial devices, could become so great that it could hinder the ability to use weather satellites, and therefore monitor changes caused by ground-based pollution.

SpaceX's proposed Mars mission

Knowledge is power, but despite showing research to entrepreneurs, they proceed to turn a blind eye to all problems in the world. Jeff Bezos himself quoted, “Our planet is finite.” To the billionaire, the Earth is useless. Even if all resources disappear and the Earth turns into the futuristic dystopia we picture in our nightmares, the wealthy will always be the back support of the space exploration industry. Though they perceive themselves as the most hopeful, they are the most negative in actuality. Investors do not see worth in saving Earth. They see it as another good to be sold in the market, tried on, and then disposed of. After it’s time for Earth to retire, they’ll flee to and exploit another planet. The possibilities of environmental exploitation are endless. Like their employees working in warehouses, the Earth is just a means to an end.

Whether there is worth in foraging on the extra-terrestrial plane is a debatable subject, but considering the number of people living in abject poverty at this moment, it is a meaningless topic to discuss. Unless asymmetric, knowledge has great ability to enrich society, to develop and understand the world around us. In this situation, however, intentions matter. The intention is not knowledge but rather economic growth – to expend billions of dollars into an experimental project – and when it succeeds, reap the benefits of accomplishment. Under a capitalist system, the acquisition of knowledge will never have noble intent and nor would the knowledge be likely accessible for the society. Capitalism necessitates the thirst for knowledge in order to elevate oneself through social ranks, not to help others. As Bezos, Musk, and Branson set afoot on their new-age journey into the outer world, the best an average person can do is condemn their actions. Show no support to their space exploration, and as a substitute, spend the time guarding the world against an impending climate disaster. There is only one earth, one planet where living beings reside.

Edited by Adi Roy and Veda Rodewald



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