Space Tourism: A Great Step for the Many or a Privilege for the Few?

It is with regret that this magazine must inform you that Elon Musk is at it again. One of the bizarre billionaire’s pet projects, SpaceX, will soon be ready to put 7 people in space, the first private space initiative. Musk has decided to (of course) put a billionaire on the first flight – Yusuka Maezawa, Japanese entrepreneur – who has in turn decided to fill the rest of the seats with artists, in order to spur the creation of great art. According to Musk, the first commercial manned space flight will take place in 2023, with a SpaceX base on Mars supposedly only 10 years away from being underway.

While this all sounds very noble, it’s worrying that we haven’t moved past the Renaissance method of arts funding where elites with ethically questionable fortunes pump money into art which is essentially publicity – did you know that most Western renaissance depictions of Jesus are in fact based off of Cesare Borgia, a notorious Renaissance gangster? With Musk’s money financing art there is a danger that the truth behind Musk and SpaceX could be obscured, or even ignored completely.

Secondly, Musk choosing Maezawa as the first person to be on the rocket sets a worrying precedent. The idea of a private space travel agency springing up to cater to the whims of the super-rich was once ridiculous, but now it’s a realistic prospect. The people with most to gain from space travel – the general intelligentsia, the philosophers, the scientists, even the military – will probably be unable to access it and use it for the benefit of society. Rather, space travel will become an environmentally disastrous plaything of narcissistic billionaires like Musk, who will make a healthy profit off an industry that will be hugely damaging to the environment in terms of CO2 produced and material wastage upon launch and re-entry. I’m skeptical that Musk, or any other billionaire, will use the obscene profits available from commercial space travel for any kind of greater good other than their own personal use. I count investing in companies as personal use in this case; given in Musk’s case he would likely pump some of the money into some other venture he can use to make even more profit from, and so on ad infinitum.

Space, and space travel, is disturbingly unregulated. Because nobody has managed to create a base on any foreign planet or body, there are no territorial claims – yet. What happens if a private company finds resources on the moon, or Mars? It is in their best interest to exploit this, no matter the cost, because that’s how companies work. Musk has already given a great example of this, selling a “Not-flamethrower” to the general public, despite the general public proving time and time again they can’t be trusted with anything resembling a weapon. Private companies operate in the interests of their own profit and shareholders alone. Private space travel could turn into a space Gold Rush, as companies and billionaires desperately try to strike lucky in space. While I’m not saying nation states would handle the discovery of rare resources in space extremely well, or even much better than private companies, most nation states have interests outside of profit and can be expected to at least care about the greater ethical good. Even in the hands of a nation like China or North Korea, the gains from discovery would at least benefit some of the ordinary people in that country in some way and not merely further enrich a (or some) billionaire(s).

Space, once described as “the final frontier” of human exploration, could soon be colonised by humans. What we make of space hinges on the next few years. There are two great paths presented to us: space can become an escape from an overcrowded, unfair planet for many people who wish to start a new life. Space can be an opportunity for the masses of humanity. Or, if corporations and billionaires get there first, space can become a disneyland for the super-rich, locked off to the majority of the people on planet earth. Or worse, it could become an industry like airlines, causing insurmountable damage to an already dying planet. It’s not just preferable that industries like SpaceX don’t take off – it’s imperative.


[Gabriel Rutherford]

[Image credit: PIRO4D/]

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