by Raywat Deonandan
This article was first published in the Huffington Post on Feb 12, 2018. A longer version is available here.
Elon Musk’s company SpaceX successfully launched the second heaviest rocket to have ever left Earth. The so-called Falcon Heavy rocket carried the whimsical payload of Musk’s red Tesla roadster and a mannequin in a spacesuit, blasting David Bowie tunes while flashing on the car’s dashboard Douglas Addams’s famous phrase, “Don’t Panic.” It was a triumph of nerdish power, but also an effective demonstration of SpaceX’s new space commercialization capacities.
Every time a grand achievement in space exploration occurs, the feat summons a predictable chorus of critics decrying the supposed waste that such a spectacle represents. And this event was no exception, as Nathan Robinson quickly wrote in The Guardian, in a piece titled Why Elon Musk’s SpaceX launch is utterly depressing: “If we examine the situation honestly, and get past our natural (and accurate) feeling that rockets are really cool, it becomes hard to defend a project like this.”
The launch was an easy target: a rich playboy spends hundreds of millions of dollars to put his private sports car into space. The intent of the spectacle was to demonstrate Musk’s capability to put an enormous payload into orbit and beyond: critical for potentiating the next great steps in the commercialization and exploration of deep space.
Robinson’s arguments are not new. With every space launch come the cries of disgust that money and resources are expended to expel materials from the world, while crises remain unaddressed here on the ground. In essence, the plea is one for rational priorities that rank the alleviation of human suffering above what Robinson describes as “indulgent projects” that only confirm that “rockets are really cool.”
Years ago, actor Ashton Kutcher appeared on Bill Maher’s TV show to complain about the new Mars rover, about how we shouldn’t be putting “stuff on Mars” when there is still “child slavery” here on Earth. The implications are twofold: first that we are somehow incapable of doing both things — addressing human crises here on Earth while simultaneously exploring the heavens; and second that if we did not do the latter, then the money saved would be redirected to service the former.
Leave aside the hypocrisy of a wealthy critic like Kutcher, whose $200-million net worth could be redirected to rescue countless child slaves, and whose purchase of a ticket to be a space tourist might be in conflict with his seeming anti-space and anti-equity stance. The real issue that Robinson brings up is one of the need to address wealth inequality. The specific injustices to which he alluded — insecure housing, health care and education — are essentially issues of poverty.
It is important to note that on a global level, there is compelling evidence that poverty is declining. China alone reduced its poverty rate from nearly 90 per cent in 1981 to under two per cent today. It bothers a good leftist like me to admit, but China accomplished this Herculean feat by embracing market reforms. A brand of modern capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than any other force in human history.
The NASA budget is just under $20 billion. The latest valuation of Elon Musk’s SpaceX company is about $21 billion. This is comparable to the size of a major airline, like United, which holds assets worth about $39 billion. If the SpaceX venture is an “indefensible waste of resources,” as Robinson claims, then what of other frivolous industries, like entertainment? Disney is valued at about $160 billion. But the endless production of Marvel movies, each the price of a space mission, is not seen as frivolous, since they employee hundreds and generate rivers of downstream wealth.
If we apply that same standard to the space exploration industry, a similar narrative emerges. A 1992 article in Nature estimated these economic benefits to the American taxpayer wrought by the space program: $21.6 billion in sales and benefits, 352,000 (mostly skilled) jobs created or saved, $355 million in federal corporate income taxes, $95 billion in economic activity and $1.5 billion return on investment in the form of sold commercial goods and services.
Elon Musk’s space venture is primarily a for-profit commercial venture. However, it produces wealth and income for hundreds of employees and thousands of downstream benefactors. It creates new technologies, some of them with the potential to help free us from environment-wasting fossil fuel dependence. Musk’s venture creates entire new sectors and a career pipeline for young scientists seeking to create more value, multiplying across future generations. All of this amounts to increased societal wealth, limitedly concentrated; in other words, if well-managed, his venture contributes incrementally to global poverty reduction.
So, where is the resource waste that Robinson really needs to scorn and scold? Well, a single new Ford class aircraft carrier costs the U.S. taxpayer $10 billion… half the total valuation of SpaceX. And its purpose is not to employ thousands, lift thousands more out of poverty, combat environmental degradation, explore the universe or train young scientists. Its purpose is to kill people.
I implore critics like Mr. Robinson to turn their attention to the sector that consistently wastes the largest proportion of public resources for no greater virtue than mass murder: military overspending. I would include in that call the need to resist the perversion of the development of space industries in service of militaristic ends, for that frontier is where the space sector loses its moral advantage. Meanwhile, as a character in The West Wing once said, “No one is hungrier, colder or dumber because we went to the moon.”
If it unfolds as many hope, space exploration shall be our salvation — economically, spiritually, technologically and possibly even ecologically. We denude it at our peril, especially in service of unspecific, misdirected and naive activist goals.