Richard Branson has been to space. Jeff Bezos just visited, too. Rich people have done this sort of thing before, but Branson and Bezos didn’t just pay for a ticket—they paid for the spaceships. Individuals, if they’re wealthy enough, are no longer beholden to a government craft when they want to leave the planet for a little while.
These two voyages have generated an awful lot of takes. Some have celebrated the engineering and persistence required to fly a bunch of humans into space and bring them back safely, or the wonder of pushing the boundaries of possibility. Mostly, though, they’ve proved an irresistible occasion to vent frustrations about billionaires doing billionaire things instead of focusing their resources on the pandemic, or climate change, or any of the other rolling crises here on Earth. People are dying. The planet is broken. Maybe these guys, and fellow billionaire space enthusiast Elon Musk, ought to tuck their space phalluses away and focus on some of our more immediate concerns.
A couple of decades ago, when the three men’s respective space companies were just getting started, they were taken as evidence that these nouveau riche types were dreaming too big. Now, notwithstanding some legitimate arguments about effective tax rates and who makes public policy, it’s the critics who are thinking too small. The billionaire joyrides into space are just the brightest, shiniest objects in a much larger field.
After decades of false starts, Earth’s orbit and points beyond are being commercialized at incredible speed by dozens of private companies. The willingness of Branson and Bezos to go up in their own spacecraft amounts to little more than an endorsement that their vessels are finally safe enough for them to try, and, more pointedly, that space is open for business. Other people will keep going there, possibly by the thousands, along with tens of thousands of machines designed to further commodify the heavens. What happens up above us will be one of the most important economic and technological stories of the next decade, whether or not Musk ever settles Mars.
Here are just a few of the less remarked-on recent stories out of the private space industry. First was the stock market debut of a company called Astra Space Inc., which, backed by venture capitalists, built a viable orbital rocket in just a few years. Its goal is to fly satellites into orbit every single day. Shortly after Astra went public at a value of $2.1 billion, satellite maker Planet Labs Inc.—which uses hundreds of eyes in the sky to photograph the Earth’s entire landmass daily—announced its plans to do the same, at a value of $2.8 billion. Firefly Aerospace Inc. has a rocket on a California pad awaiting clearance to launch. OneWeb and Musk’s SpaceX are both regularly launching satellites meant to blanket the planet in high-speed internet access. Rocket Lab, in the previously spacecraft-free country of New Zealand, is planning missions to the moon and Venus.
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