This story first appeared in Jacobin on July 13, 2021. It is shared here with permission.
On June 7, Jeff Bezos announced his plan to go to space on July 20—just fifteen days after finishing up as CEO of Amazon. It was positioned as a bold next step in the billionaire space race that has been escalating for several years, though it didn’t take long for its true face to show itself. Soon after Bezos set his date, Virgin Galactic CEO Richard Branson—a man known for his marketing stunts—decided he would try to beat the richest man in the world into orbit and scheduled his own space flight for July 11.
But as these billionaires had their eyes turned to the stars and the media showered them with the headlines they craved, the evidence that the climate of our planet is rapidly changing in a way that is hostile to life—both human and otherwise—was escalating.
Near the end of June, Jacobabad, a city of 200,000 people in Pakistan, experienced “wet bulb” conditions where high humidity and scorching temperatures combine to reach a level where the human body can no longer cool itself down. Meanwhile, half a world away, on the West Coast of North America, a heat dome that was made much worse by climate change sent temperatures soaring so high that the town of Lytton, British Columbia, hit 49.6ºC, beating Canada’s previous temperature record by 4.6ºC, then burned to the ground when a wildfire tore through the town.
The contrast between those stories is striking. On one hand, billionaires are engaging in a dick-measuring contest to see who can exit the atmosphere first, while on the other, the billions of us who will never make any such journey are increasing dealing with the consequences of capitalism’s effects on the climate—and the decades its most powerful adherents have spent stifling action to curb them.
At a moment when we should be throwing everything we have into ensuring the planet remains habitable, billionaires are treating us to a spectacle to distract us from their quest for continued capitalist accumulation and the disastrous effects it is already having.
THE SPECTACLE OF BILLIONAIRES IN SPACE
Last May, we were treated to a similar display of billionaire space ambition. As people across the United States were marching in the streets after the murder of George Floyd and the government was doing little to stop COVID-19 from sweeping the country, Elon Musk and President Donald Trump met in Florida to celebrate SpaceX’s first time launching astronauts to the International Space Station.
As regular people were fighting for their lives, it felt like the elite were living in a completely separate world and had no qualms about showing it. They didn’t have to make it to another planet.
Over the past few years, as the billionaire space race has escalated, the public has become increasingly familiar with its grand visions for our future. SpaceX’s Elon Musk wants us to colonize Mars and claims the mission of his space company is to lay the infrastructure to do just that. He wants humanity to be a “multiplanetary” species, and he claims a Martian colony would be a backup plan in case Earth becomes uninhabitable.
Meanwhile, Bezos doesn’t have much time for Mars colonization. Instead, he believes we should build large structures in Earth’s orbit where the human population can grow to a trillion people without further harming the planet’s environment. As we live out our lives in O’Neill cylinders, as they’re called, we’ll take occasional vacations down to the surface to experience the wonder of the world we once called home.
Neither of these futures are appealing if you look past the billionaires’ rosy pitch decks. Life on Mars would be horrendous for hundreds of years, at least, and would likely kill many of the people who made the journey, while the technology for massive space colonies doesn’t exist and similarly won’t be feasible for a long time to come. So, what’s the point of promoting these futures in the face of an unprecedented threat to our species here on Earth? It’s to get the public on board for a new phase of capitalist accumulation whose benefits will be reaped by those billionaires.
To be clear, that does not even mean anything as grand as asteroid mining. Rather, its form can be seen in the event last May: as Musk and even Trump continued to push the spectacle of Mars for the public, SpaceX was becoming not just a key player in a privatized space industry but also in enabling a military buildup through billions of dollars in government contracts. The grand visions, rocket launches, and spectacles of billionaires leaving the atmosphere are all cover for the real space economy.
THE PUBLIC-PRIVATE SPACE PARTNERSHIP
While Branson is using the PR stunt for attention, the real competition is between Bezos and Musk—and while they do compete with each other, they have significant mutual interest. In 2004, Bezos and Musk met to discuss their respective visions for space, which led Musk to call Bezos’s ideas “dumb.” As a result of that discussion, they occasionally snipe at each other—exchanges the media eats up—but they’re still working to forward a private space industry from which they both stand to benefit.
The years of competition between SpaceX and Blue Origin over landing platforms, patents, and NASA contracts show what the billionaire space race is really about. The most recent example of this is a $2.9 billion NASA contract awarded to SpaceX to build a moon lander, which Blue Origin and defense contractor Dynetics challenged. In the aftermath, Congress considered increasing NASA’s budget by $10 billion, in part so it could hand a second contract to Blue Origin. But that’s hardly the only example of public funding for the ostensibly private space industry.
A report from Space Angels in 2019 estimated that $7.2 billion had been handed out to the commercial space industry since 2000, and it specifically called out SpaceX as a company whose early success depended on NASA contracts. Yet private space companies aren’t just building relationships with the public space agency.
SpaceX won a $149 million contract from the Pentagon to build missile-tracking satellites, and two more worth $160 million to use its Falcon 9 rockets. It also won an initial contract of $316 million to provide a launch for the Space Force—a contract whose value will likely be worth far more in the future—and it’s building the military a rocket that will deliver weapons around the world. On top of all that, SpaceX won $900 million in subsidies from the Federal Communications Commission to provide rural broadband through its overhyped Starlink satellites.
For all the lauding of private space companies and the space billionaires that champion them, they remain heavily reliant on government money. This is the real face of the private space industry: billions of dollars in contracts from NASA, the military, and increasingly for telecommunications that are helping companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin control the infrastructure of space—and it’s all justified to the public under the promise that it’s in service of grand visions that are nothing more than marketing ploys.
Part of the reason SpaceX has been so successful at winning these contracts is because Musk is not an inventor but a marketer. He knows how to use PR stunts to get people to pay attention, and that helps him win lucrative contracts. He also knows what things not to emphasize, like the potentially controversial military contracts that don’t get tweets or flashy announcement videos. Bezos’s trip to space is all about embracing spectacle, because he realizes it’s essential to compete for the attention of the public and the bureaucrats deciding who gets public contracts.
BILLIONAIRES AREN’T GOING ANYWHERE
For years, there have been concerns that billionaires’ space investments are about escaping the climate chaos their class continues to fuel here on Earth. It’s the story of Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium: the rich live on a space colony, and the rest of us suffer on a climate-ravaged Earth while being pushed around by robot police as we perform the labor that makes the abundance of the colony possible. But that’s not actually the future we’re headed toward.
As Sim Kern explains, keeping just a few people alive on the International Space Station takes a staff of thousands—and it gets harder the farther away people are from the one world we can truly call home. Mars colonies or massive space stations are not happening anytime soon; they won’t be a backup plan, nor an escape hatch. As billionaires chase profit in space and boost their egos in the process, they’re also planning for climate apocalypse down here on Earth—but they’re only planning for themselves.
Just as Musk uses misleading narratives about space to fuel public excitement, he does the same with climate solutions. His portfolio of electric cars, suburban solar installations, and other transport projects are promoted to the public, but they are designed to work best—if not exclusively—for the elite. Billionaires are not leaving the planet, they’re insulating themselves from the general public with bulletproof vehicles, battery-powered gated communities, and possibly even exclusive transport tunnels. They have the resources to maintain multiple homes and to have private jets on standby if they need to flee a natural disaster or public outrage.
We desperately need the public to see through the spectacle of the billionaire space race and recognize that they’re not laying the groundwork for a fantastic future, or even advancing scientific knowledge about the universe. They’re trying to extend our ailing capitalist system, while diverting resources and attention from the most pressing challenge the overwhelming majority of the planet faces. Instead of letting the billionaires keep playing in space, we need to seize the wealth they’ve extracted from us and redeploy it to address the climate crisis—before it’s too late.