Billionaires’ Pleasure

Space Race and Global Justice

Akash Barua

Though many carry notions that global standards of life and well-being in general have significantly enhanced in the 21st century, the world still faces challenges that require urgent cognizance. Estimates suggest that the year 2020 saw an increase of between 119 million and 124 million global poor. From 2019 to 2020 the number of undernourished grew by as many as 161 million. And according to 2020’s Annual Climate Report the combined land and ocean temperature has increased at an average rate of 0.08 degree Celsius per decade since 1880; the average rate of increase since 1981 has been more than twice that rate.

Despite such staggering statistics being accessible to almost every university around the world and published in every research journal, rather than taking explicit actions, few of the world’s top billionaires are investing fortunes on space ventures that would groom humans for interplanetary travels. Neoliberal scholars definitely wouldn't mind such discourses. Generally, why should they? Shouldn't people have the right to channelise their profits in whichever way they want? Queries such as these seem to bother not just a few Marxists but also global justice scholars who attempt to scrutinise the utilisation of global wealth generated through human labour.

Space X is an American aerospace corporation founded by Elon Musk. Musk is a distinguished futurist who has invested extensively in the transportation and communication sector. Having founded the company in 2002, its primary goal is to reduce the cost of space transportation and ultimately enable human colonisation of Mars aboard its ambitious ‘Starship’. It has been the first private space company to send a spacecraft and astronauts to the International Space Station. It is also developing a mega-constellation of satellites -‘Starlink’- to provide cheap and efficient global internet services. Musk is confident that by 2026 Space X will land humans on Mars.

One of its rival companies is Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. Having initially founded to make access to space cheaper; in 2019, Bezos unveiled that the company is set to manufacture a moon- lander named ‘Blue Moon’, to be operational by 2024. He also plans to launch the first private space station ‘Orbital Reef’ by the end of this decade. Modelled as a ‘space business park’ it would open multiple markets in space by providing customers services like transportation and logistics, habitation, tourism etc. The Boeing Company and Arizona State University have already partnered for the project. Despite much skepticism, Blue Origin gained tenable appreciation among space enthusiasts when it sent its first crewed mission, which included Bezos himself, into space aboard its ‘New Shepard’ rocket in July 2021. 

In this new era of space exploration, the capitalist mantra of privatisation and commodification is expanding well beyond the horizons of earth, as governments across the world are deregulating space for the corporate sector. A fresh entrepreneurial class of technological and aerospace manufacturing companies seeks to take over the industry from the grasp of the public sector and earn profits. Some of the greatest engineering minds are already being employed into this enterprise. For social scientists, this phenomenon begets fascinating questions and insights; who are the beneficiaries of the ‘low-cost’ space travel? Are the benefits for all, or for a few fantasising to step foot on the Martian land? Such interrogations are essential as they help in unraveling the dilemmas of privatising space exploration. 

As the Covid-19 pandemic endangers billions of people and world hunger surges, a handful of super-rich men are pouring billions of dollars into their space companies. On 26th June 2021, the head of the World Food Programme called on Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk to contribute 6 billion dollars needed to save 41 million people who are at risk of starving. Though the amount seems astounding for the layman, for these billionaires, it's tantamount to pocket change. As of 2019, ten percent of the global population falls under the grouping of ‘extreme poverty’. Poverty alleviation is listed on top of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals but inequality within nations have further increased due to globalisation, even though inequality among nations have decreased.

The new industry that is cultivating space tourism bears with it large environmental costs. When rockets launch into space they emit a variety of substances into the atmosphere such as carbon dioxide, water, chlorine and other chemicals. For one long haul plane flight one to three tonnes of carbon dioxide is emitted per passenger; but for one rocket launch it’s 200 to 300 tonnes split between two or four passengers. The space industry has also been responsible for increasing space debris around the earth’s orbit. The US Space Surveillance Network in 2019 reported nearly 20,000 artificial objects, often termed as space junks, in orbit above earth; these are only the ones that are large enough to be tracked.

Space exploration since time immemorial has enchanted human minds; the desire to reach for the stars has swayed innumerous scientists and philosophers. However the new space race is a perversion of that imaginative potential. In times when there has been no solution for global poverty, few are acquiring tickets to space. A Japanese billionaire in 2018 spent an undisclosed amount with Space X for a future private trip around the moon and back. In June 2021 an anonymous space lover paid over 28 million dollars to fly Blue Origin's New Shepard. Space today has grown into an exclusive ‘pleasure garden' reserved for the elites, distracting themselves from the widespread calamities that they themselves have fabricated.

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Vol 54, No. 31, Jan 30 - Feb 5, 2022