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Sunday, September 26, 2021

THE BILLIONAIRES’ SPACE RACE IS JUST THE BEGINNING

On the eve of Jeff Bezos’ triumphant launch into space, Berkeley economics professor and former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich took to Twitter and offered a little snark.

“No one needs Bezos to launch rockets into outer space. We need him to pay his fair share of taxes so people can thrive here on Earth.”

The world is very fortunate that professor Reich was not around 100 years ago when Bill Boeing and Donald Douglas were vying to see who would be the first to use the then-new technology of the airplane to transport cargo and passengers around the world. Otherwise, millions of people might not be boarding airliners every day to visit relatives or attend business meetings in far-off destinations.

The suborbital jaunts accomplished by Richard Branson and Bezos were not just expressions of egos. They constituted the next steps in the creation of a brand-new industry, space tourism. Their main rival, SpaceX’s Elon Musk, is already planning flights of his Crew Dragonwith private passengers willing to pay lots of money for an out-of-this-world experience in low Earth orbit. The first of these missions, Inspiration4, is being mounted to raise money for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Branson and Musk will charge a little less money for a few minutes of weightlessness and the best view of the Earth most have ever experienced.

While only the well-to-do will be able to afford private space travel, for the time being, that state of affairs will not last forever. Technological progress and economies of scale will combine to bring down the cost of a space vacation, bringing it into reach for more people. The same process that created the aviation industry will more than likely replicate itself with the commercial space sector.

PHOTO CREDIT: Associated Press

Sometime in the future, people will be able to board a rocket ship and fly to a private space station for a week filled with experiences that currently only government astronauts and a few rich people have been able to have. A company called Axiom Space, which is partnering with SpaceX for private flights of the Crew Dragon, is already planning such an orbiting facility, which will primarily be for research and microgravity manufacturing. Interiors of the crew quarters are being designed by French industrial designer Philippe Starck. None other than former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine suggested that private people will one day voyage to commercial space stations, according to CNBC. “The future is going to be human space stations, commercially owned and operated,” he said.

The billionaires’ space race has already been of enormous benefit to NASA. SpaceX is transporting astronauts and cargo to and from the International Space Station for far less cost than the space shuttle used to. The first American astronauts back to the moon will ride to the lunar surface on a specially outfitted SpaceX Starship rocket, currently being tested at Boca Chica, Texas. Bezos is developing the Blue Moon lunar lander to compete with SpaceX, now with billions in incentives. NASA has chosen the SpaceX Falcon Heavy to launch the Europa Clipper for a savings of almost $2 billion over the Space Launch System.

PHOTO CREDIT: Associated Press

Cheap access to space and returning to the moon are the keys to creating a space-based economy. Resources mined on the moon could be shipped to manufacturing facilities in Earth orbit. Space resource extraction is one of the projects being developed by Blue Origin. Space factories would use microgravity to create products that would be impossible to build on Earth. Combined with space tourism, space manufacturing would create immeasurable wealth.

The idea that two suborbital hops will lead to an Earth-moon economic sphere might seem like science fiction. However, a group of Japanese businesses, academics and elected officials recently proposed such a vision that they labeled “Planet 6.0.”

Boeing and Douglas might have shaken their heads at the idea of a world bound together by airliners. When they started civil aviation consisted mostly of barnstorming stunts at county fairs, the equivalent of Branson’s and Bezos’ suborbital hops. Yet what was the future to them is our present. No reason exists to suppose that the realm of human activity cannot be extended to low Earth orbit, the moon and, perhaps in the fullness of time, beyond. Such a future would make better use of the billions held by people like Bezos, Musk and others than to be paid as part of their “fair share of taxes.”

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