billionaires are starting a new space race. so, what happens to the rest of us?
Rumor has it that sometime in 2004 Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos met to discuss their grand plans for space exploration over dinner and the conversation did not go well. Both Musk’s SpaceX and Bezos’ Blue Origin were still just getting off the ground, so all options should have been on the table as far as Bezos was concerned. Musk disagreed, calling Amazon CEOs’ plans dumb after claiming to have tried them already with little success. A rather unfriendly rivalry formed as the two companies pursued very different visions, with SpaceX very much ahead. While Blue Origin is still taking tentative steps into suborbital space, its competitor is testing prototypes of what’s meant to become a reusable interplanetary craft.
But while it’s very difficult to deny that a company which now reuses key parts of its rockets and returned the U.S. to crewed spaceflight has the better execution than a vanity project, when we talk about the visions espoused by the company’s owners, it’s Bezos who has the saner, better long term view. I know this is an awkward way to talk about a man who put a million workers in modern day warehouse sweatshops which generated countless horror stories seemingly ripped from a dystopian novel, but it is true. Blue Origin may be far behind, but its optimistic approach to our planet is much more grounded in reality than Musk’s grandiose and temperamental flights of fancy which already assume nasty collateral damage. As Vanity Fair’s Nick Bilton puts it…
“Bezos thinks the world is a wonderful place that we’re going to destroy with industry and pollution, and if only we can get that stuff on the Moon, or Mars, we’ll be just fine here on this big blue dot. Musk, always the pessimist, thinks the Earth is well and truly fucked from climate change and that the only way to save us humans is to escape to another planet, preferably Mars, and get a sort-of do-over.
Yeah, so here’s the thing about that. Mars is not a great place to have a do-over of civilization by any means. Just because parts of it look like parts of Earth doesn’t mean much because pretty much everything on the red planet is literally poison to humans. The soil is full of toxic salts and eons of scouring by seasonal winds and radiation means that it’s electrostatic and easily inhaled by astronauts taking off their spacesuits which is bad because that dust is carcinogenic. The air will kill you because it’s almost entirely carbon dioxide and there’s so little atmospheric pressure that terraforming is impossible. The low gravity will permanently damage your muscles, bones, and brain. And on top of all that, the radiation is intense enough to sterilize the surface.
In fact, experts say that if we’re going to set up a habitat anywhere, Saturn’s moon Titan would make a better candidate than Mars. So, if we ever found ourselves with no choice but to rebuild a civilization on the red planet, it means we obliterated the Earth in a nuclear war and nothing less. No matter how much we could pollute our planet, it will still be far more habitable than the most welcoming place on Mars where you’ll live a significantly shorter, uncomfortable, mentally exhausting life almost entirely underground eating microgreens and manufactured protein under UV and SAD lights. Even worse, if you have to borrow the hundreds of thousands that you’ll be charged to move there, prepare for years of indentured servitude to SpaceX.
Meanwhile, there’s no reason why we couldn’t launch our heavy industry into space where even the worst pollutants we can emit would pale in comparison to the solar winds and natural toxins and poisons found in alien environments. If we ever gave up mining on Earth to extract what we need from asteroids, we could alleviate decades of intense environmental damage at perfectly reasonable price points. If we were to invest into moving as much of our pollution to the Moon and beyond, where our waste would be broken down by corrosive substances and radiation, and invest into clean energy on Earth, we wouldn’t need to settle for the fate of Morlocks under the deadly and poisonous Martian deserts.
This puts us in a bit of a bind because the company most likely to pull off its vision has a rather dystopian view of our future, and the company with the vision that would do most good in the grand scheme of things is so far behind. Unless, of course, we choose to get involved. We want private competition when it comes to the best rockets and spacecraft we can use, and the best technology should be rewarded handsomely. But how that technology gets used is still up to us and if the rules and regulations we set up incentivize and prioritize rapid automation and moving mining and heavy industry off the planet, it doesn’t matter what vision a billionaire might have in bankrolling it, no matter how dystopian or utopian. They become just a means to a better end.