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The populists versus the (rocket) billionaires

SpaceX’s launch of a Tesla roadster with a mannequin in a spacesuit on the first Falcon Heavy launch was seen by space advocate as a clever stunt, but others saw it as how “space barons” like Elon Musk are out of touch with society. (credit: SpaceX)

Within the space industry, few people oppose the efforts by billionaires to fund and operate space companies. They may disagree with the strategies and tactics of specific companies and their financiers, but in general most in the industry welcome the interest they’ve taken in spaceflight that’s helped foster the development of a broader entrepreneurial, or NewSpace, industry.

Outside of the industry is a different story. As the billionaires become wealthier—Jeff Bezos’ net worth is now approaching $150 billion as the value of his Amazon.com stake, ah, skyrockets—there is growing concern in the public about the undue influence these people may have, not to mention broader criticism about income inequality.

Amazon, for example, recently opposed a tax backed by the Seattle City Council to fund efforts to counter the city’s rampant homelessness problem. Ultimately, the city had to back down despite the meager effect it would have had on the company’s bottom line. Tesla, the electric car company run by Elon Musk, has been under fire for unsafe working conditions.

It’s in that mindset that one should read “Elon Musk and the Failure of Our Imagination in Space,” published earlier this month on The New Yorker’s website. The article is ostensibly a review of the recent book The Space Barons by Christian Davenport on the space ambitions of Bezos, Musk, Paul Allen, and Richard Branson. (A similar book, The Rocket Billionaires by Tim Fernholz, was published simultaneously, but gets no mention here.) But it’s really a criticism of those billionaires’ space ambitions.

The author of the review is Ceridwen Dovey, the Australian author of short story collections and novels. It seems as if The New Yorker, by asking a female Australian novelist to review a book that features male American entrepreneurs, sought to find someone as antipodean as possible in geography, gender, and genre.

Dovey’s criticisms of these space billionaires, and Davenport’s portrayal of them, are severalfold. One line of attack is regarding sexism, citing everything from von Braun and The Right Stuff to the “Galactic Girl” livery on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. Certainly the early Space Age was filled with sexism (like society of that era), but it’s not clear how it applies to the modern day beyond Branson’s own style.

Her argument is apparently a desire for more inclusion, certainly a desirable one. (One fact not mentioned in her article is that the last two NASA astronaut classes have been nearly 50-50 between men and women.) And, space tourism ventures allow men and women to go to space so long as they have the means to pay for a ticket. “But it’s not enough to promise women that one day they, too, could become passengers to space,” she writes. What is enough? She cites a philosophy professor who says, “Democratization is not only about access but about input. Who is able to guide and shape these activities?” She doesn’t answer that question, but insinuated women aren’t guiding and shaping these activities very much.

Another argument involves the role the military plays in these companies. “While the space barons are happy to take large amounts of government funding, they’re quick to complain when the government attempts any oversight of their endeavors,” she writes, citing, among other things, SpaceX’s initial work with DARPA and current business launching military satellites (or, as she describes them, “the tools of our self-annihilation.”)

That argument is flawed for a couple reasons. One is that most of the “space barons” mentioned in the book have not taken large amounts of government funding, or any at all. Blue Origin has a small amount of NASA money from early commercial crew work, and now flies a few research payloads on New Shepard suborbital flights, but that’s dwarfed by the billions that Bezos has invested in his company. Virgin Galactic, similarly, has taken little government money, primarily also for suborbital research flights. Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch appears, for now, to be entirely self-funded, although the company talks about using its giant air-launched plane for launching military payloads someday. Only Musk has taken a large amount of government money, primarily from NASA; it’s also achieved the most among this group of companies so far.

Moreover, these companies willingly operate under government oversight, like FAA launch licenses and permits. They may criticize bureaucracy and inefficiency in parts of the process—being overhauled now at the direction of the White House—but the relationship between the regulators and the regulated is far more cooperative than in most industries.

That argument is not the only flaw in Dovey’s essay. Despite The New Yorker’s reputation for rigorous factchecking, there are a number of errors that slipped through. In one sentence in the second paragraph, she gets the name of San Diego’s major newspaper wrong (it’s the Union-Tribune, not the Tribune.) The following sentence gives credit for a study that listed the female percentage of SpaceX’s workforce to the publication that ran it, not the company that actually performed it. (That same paragraph, at the end, makes a comparison for the Tesla Roadster launched on the Falcon Heavy that seems, well, sexist.)

Those are minor errors, but there are bigger ones as well. After recounting an anecdote where Bezos, as a college student, described asteroid mining only to have another student claim he was trying to “rape the universe,” Dovey brings up Article II of the Outer Space Treaty, which forbids claims on asteroids and other celestial bodies. “Permanent ownership claims to an asteroid, whether by a company or a bunch of college space nerds, are unlawful—some might even say rapacious,” she writes.

But, she fails to note that there’s nothing against asteroid miners, even “college space nerds,” harvesting resources so long as they don’t claim the asteroid itself. She also doesn’t mention laws in the United States and Luxembourg, and perhaps soon other countries as well, that give companies rights to those harvested resources. All those errors give the perception of sloppiness in Dovey’s argument against the space barons.

It’s not clear what Dovey would like to see changed about these billionaires’ companies, beyond flying more women (none of them have flown anyone to space yet, though) and doing less business with the military (only SpaceX has, and it’s a small part of its portfolio.) The end of the book talks about the “elevated status of astronauts” in both society and law, and suggests that these companies “seem to be counting on us to be awestruck by whatever it is they do in space, and to overlook the fact that their motives are not exactly pure, nor are their methods of getting us there egalitarian.” Of course, the motives of government space programs are neither pure nor egalitarian as well, nor have they ever been like that, including during the Space Race a half-century ago.

But it’s easy to see her arguments be used against the companies in general. “At the moment, they have almost total control over the narrative of what space is and can be for humankind,” she claims, which seems to oddly dismiss the tremendous public influence and brand equity NASA still has.

If there is a sharp swing in public sentiment against billionaires like Bezos and Musk—some have dubbed such a potential shift a “techlash”—they’ll likely make arguments against their space ventures like those in Dovey’s essay: they’re rich white men out of touch with broader society, preferring to work with the military than help the poor. If these companies really do have “total control over the narrative of what space is and can be for humankind,” they should be working overtime now to explain how they benefit humanity, and not just their bottom lines.


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