Illustration by Mariam Diab.

The Billionaire Space Race for Seven Billion

The billionaire space race may currently be the product of a society that rewards a few at the expense of the rest; however, if conducted under comprehensive regulatory mechanisms, it can ultimately benefit us all.

Sep 19, 2021

On July 21, Jeff Bezos made headlines for putting together the first human crew to fly into space in a wholly corporate mission. In a world still plagued by a killer virus, critics slammed the effort put into Blue Origin’s success, pointing out that its resources could have been directed toward the social welfare of billions. However, there is an important distinction between calling for wealth redistribution and recognizing that space investment can benefit the masses in regard to energy and resources. The best way to ensure fair outcomes is to push for this growth under the umbrellas of regulation and equity. Point out that five billion dollars is too much of an investment to go into a corporation like Blue Origin and Bezos will respond that he dedicated over $10 billion to his philanthropic efforts in 2020 alone. Criticize SpaceX for spending billions on space tech while countless people suffer from famine and hunger every day and Musk will point to the Boring Company’s mission to make public transport more accessible, to Neuralink’s work to make prosthetics and medicine cheaper and to Tesla’s efforts in reducing global reliance on fossil-fuel based transport. The reality is that most critics are not against space exploration but rather the capitalist structures that allowed billionaires to exist and ignore the masses. In this case, there is an argument to be made for sustainable investment in space — a world where we push for regulatory structures to prevent only monopolies from benefitting.
Space hotels for billionaires are an image that evokes disgust in most people, but it’s important to understand that tourism is a small part of space commercialization. According to reports, Bezos has been spending one billion dollars of his own wealth every year on Blue Origin, and tourism for the ultra-wealthy is not the primary goal of his space investment. Megacorporations are mostly structured on this principle of maximizing profit and there is a very limited consumer base that can afford to pay for an extravagant ticket to space. The vision, however, extends beyond mere space tourism. Another goal for space capitalists like Bezos and Musk is to develop technology that will enable cost-effective resource extraction from asteroid belts to obtain rare minerals that are in short supply on Earth. Minerals like gold are crucial for computer technology that has the potential to improve the quality of life for close to a billion people in poverty. One of the current roadblocks to making this a reality is price. Free market economics tells us that a greater supply of gold will drive down prices and make it more accessible for poorer governments, which will result in cheaper technology for their populations and allow them to invest in their own satellites. But this is only possible if a global, unbiased and nonprofit organization can be formed to oversee mining operations, or the Space Gap will only widen astronomically. It will also mean creating a set of laws as comprehensive to space as International Humanitarian Law.
Additionally, developments in space technology make it easier to lessen pollution on Earth, as mining in space instead can reduce greenhouse emissions on the ground. Currently, such operations are infeasible due to the massive expenses involved in even transporting small volumes of cargo past the stratosphere, but private innovation and investment is, realistically, the quickest way to close the gap. There are also other hypothetical technologies that could have genuine benefits to humanity, such as solar panels in space that transmit electricity down to Earth through electromagnetic waves and satellites that track changes in melting ice sheets more accurately.
Of course, this is the idealistic version of the scenario in which billionaires invest in space — something that is far from the fearfully exploitative structure that companies like Amazon have established. What would incline wealthy investors — the drivers of the space industry — to steer towards the benefit of mankind? Energy is expensive, as are rare minerals. Pollution, including land pollution, is growing and there is intense competition for limited land. Governments would be willing to pay massive sums in space investment to solve their energy, land and resource crises. And yet, even with the incentives established, the question once again arises: won’t that just make the wealthy even wealthier?
The ultra-wealthy may be motivated by profit rather than altruism; to them, investing in space is no different from investing in violating data privacy, deforestation efforts or stripping the land bare for minerals in West Africa. If world governments suddenly decided to ban all private investment in space, their money would still not be used for philanthropic purposes. That said, how strong does legislation need to be to ensure that social welfare is maximized, humanized and made accessible? Current legislation is weak, resting on the shoulders of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the four agreements that followed soon after. The regulations of that time were created against the backdrop of the Space Race, which prioritized speed at the expense of regulation. Revising space agreements to make it so that low-income countries are included in all dividends produced by private investment in space tech, creating laws to ensure fair competition and balancing profit incentive with protective mechanisms is crucial.
It is impossible to capture the gravity of the challenges that surround the billionaire space race in any number of words. However, space has always represented the pinnacle of what humanity can hope to achieve. The vast universe lies beyond the borders of our home planet and it has been the greatest dreamers that have concocted stories among the stars and helped us sail the empty oceans. A push from humanity will ensure that space travel will serve every person living on our pale blue dot.
Nirvana Amjad is Deputy News Editor. Email her at
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