On July 20, 2021, on the anniversary of the moon landing, Jeff Bezos entered into space using his private rocket company, Blue Origin. This is just the latest instance of the private space race ongoing between some of the world’s wealthiest men. While this has been going on for several years now, Bezos’ ride to space elicited a strong reaction from many in government and media. Senator Bernie Sanders, for instance, took to Twitter to complain that there is a problem when “billionaires grow their wealth massively during a pandemic, and zoom around space in rocket ships, while millions of people struggle to keep a roof over their heads…” Inherent in this line of thinking is a fundamental misunderstanding of not only why billionaires are heading to space, but in how markets work entirely.
Jeff Bezos, or his other competitors like Elon Musk or Richard Branson, aren’t going to space just because they have a lot of money and they are bored. Many don’t understand that we are on the verge of a new era of humanity, and industrial competition is the key to unlocking it. For decades, it has always been assumed that governments are the only entities capable of escaping the gravity of the Earth and launching humanity into space. This is primarily because of the enormous cost it took to launch a rocket. For instance, throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, NASA’s Apollo program cost $28 billion, or around $280 billion adjusted for inflation. A large reason for this intimidating figure was a lack of efficiency.
Since it was the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war wasn’t off the table, and the government had no issue throwing enormous sums of cash to see what would stick. The name of the game was speed, not efficiency. It isn’t difficult to imagine why no private company would want to spend billions of dollars on a single-use rocket, only to build a completely new one, starting the process over for each new mission. Imagine if that were the case with any other industry. If we had to junk a Boeing 727 after each use, the commercial airline industry would be virtually non-existent. Thus, space has long been looked at as a giant money pit, requiring large sums of resources while getting very little in return. The Space Shuttle program attempted to address this issue of cost, but it ultimately failed. Until rockets could be somehow refuelable, space would remain unobtainable to the average man.
However, going into the early 2000s, things started to change. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk started dreaming of humanity’s future in the stars, and thus began envisioning more efficient ways to get us off this planet. The groundwork for the private space race was laid over the next couple of decades. A breakthrough finally came as Musk succeeded in a controlled vertical landing of his Falcon 9 booster engines in 2015. From there, the rocket industry saw an explosion of competition and innovation.
This renaissance of rocket innovation has dramatically slashed the cost of getting to space.
Sending a satellite or some other payload to space is now as affordable as under $100 million. In fact, in 2017 it was revealed that SpaceX undercut launching costs by over $300 million compared to its competition. Still not cheap, but nowhere near the tens of billions of dollars it took NASA in the 1960s to simply escape Earth’s gravity. And these prices are falling every year. In fact, Virgin Galactic is offering suborbital flights to anyone who wants to buy a ticket for as little as $250,000. These are still incredibly high figures for anyone not particularly wealthy. But as more people invest in the space economy, space travel will soon become obtainable to the average person.
Even if you personally never get to go to space, the private space race is set to dramatically improve everyone’s lives, no matter how well off they are. As it becomes more affordable to access space, satellites will be able to reach orbit with ease. This will expand internet access and strengthen its quality and speed. This expansion of internet access and quality will open up new opportunities to areas of the world that have previously never been available. The general quality of life across the planet will dramatically improve based on this alone.
As we expand further into the solar system, more companies will become interested in asteroid mining, or exporting the resources of other moons and planets. This would make energy and resources, both on Earth and in Space, more abundant, accessible, and affordable. In that process, new industries and jobs would begin to emerge that don’t even exist today. As we begin to find new ways to extract resources off-world, the environment on Earth would also heal.
The environment will likely be the greatest benefit from the private space race.
Because most environments off Earth are harsh and not suitable for life, innovations in sustainability will be required to survive. Because companies can’t simply set up a lunar base or colonize Mars without it making monetary sense, everything that is designed for missions off-world will need to have duel purposes for use on Earth. This could mean something as simple as more sustainable housing. Or, it could be as game-changing as discovering a new, long-lasting, and effective source of renewable energy.
This will drive advancements in medical technology as well. The greatest challenge that humans face in conquering the social system is the effects space will have on the human body. Space travelers will be exposed to solar and cosmic rays, increasing their risk of getting any number of cancers. The effects of low or no gravity on the human body can cause serious issues as well. Finding the solutions to challenges like these and others will ultimately expose what humans are truly capable of achieving in space. Incidentally, it will also lead to more funding and research into human health. Potentially, this could expand the life expectancy of human beings by several years or even decades.
There are other advancements in human progress that neither I nor anyone else can possibly hope to predict. The story of human prosperity is not the story of a central planner allocating resources as necessary. It is the story of motivated individuals pursuing their own self-interests, elevating everyone’s standard of living in the process. If we, as individuals like Sanders seems to imply, hold off on human progress in space until everyone in the world, or at least this country, has quality health care or can escape poverty, we will never move forward.
It is often forgotten that life, especially in a market economy, is not a zero-sum game. So long as individuals are free to experiment, innovate, and at times fail, all boats will be lifted in the process. The coming space era will truly be humanity’s greatest chapter yet. Only the free market will be capable of making that dream a reality. It can only do that if the protectionists who fear progress step out of the way.