Eat the rich, but let them build rockets in the meantime

We should go to space. Really!

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic went to space (or the vicinity of space) in a PR-suffused event over the weekend. It was all rather twee, packed with maudlin riffs about childhood dreams and riddled with hero worship. And the stream kept stuttering while some of the planned vehicle-to-Earth communications failed.

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But the launch accomplished what it set out to do: A few folks made it to into zero gravity after launching their rocket-powered space plane from a larger aircraft, flipping it around at the top of its arc so that its passengers could get a good view of our home while floating. Then it came back to the surface and, we’re sure, much champagne was consumed.

In the aftermath of the event, lots of folks are pissed. Complaints have rolled in, dissing the event and generally mocking the expense involved when there are other issues to manage. A sampling follows. Note that these are merely illustrative examples of a general vibe. I have precisely zero beef with anyone in the following tweets or articles:

And from the media side of things, this stood out today from the Tribune:

I disagree.

Sure, it’s maddening that Jeff Bezos’ new yacht will require a second boat so that he can have a mobile heliport on the go — his new boat has sails, so you can’t chopper to it — while the company that built his fortune churns through workers with abandon and squeezes its drivers so much that they have to piss in bottles due to scheduling constraints.

And, yes, Branson is annoying quite a lot of the time. He also owns an island and likes himself too much.

Even more, Elon Musk is a polarizing figure who can’t stop shitposting like a child on Twitter, spending part of this year boosting radically risky investments that cost regular folks money.

You can easily find reasons to dislike all three. Or you may just not like billionaires in general — I find this particular complaint reductive, but am stiffly in favor of a more progressive tax code and changes to how capital gains are taxed. But about the larger issue of “Why are we cheering on billionaires trying to beat one another to space when there are issues on the ground?”

I can’t be bothered.

The U.S. space industry is multifaceted — a mix of government work, defense company rent-seeking, and efforts by private companies backed by super-rich, middle-aged men. And in aggregate it’s sending probes, robots, orbiting computers, rockets, and, sure, a small plane into space (or near enough) at a pace that excites my inner nerd.

It feels like the speed at which we’re expanding the domain of space is accelerating. Musk’s SpaceX effort has cut the cost of sending objects into orbit, lowering the threshold for smaller companies to get their own wares into space. That’s good for the planet — can’t do climate science without satellites! — and the larger economy. While SpaceX works on its own systems, Bezos is torching a bunch of his own capital to compete. That means SpaceX won’t be able to rest on its laurels and simply collect fees. The competition will lead to lower prices and more safety.

Branson is taking a different approach to space, one that will initially allow the wealthy to have a joyride. But in time, costs will decline and more humans will get to experience extra-planetary freedom. And along the way, we’re going to learn a lot as a species, through both the work of doing all these things in space — basic research is good — and our ability to put more humans and tech outside the reach of our planetary gravity.

Complaints that space investment is ridiculous are not new. Indeed, The Atlantic has a great piece looking back at public opinion at the time of the Apollo Project. It was underwater. Folks were not pleased with the focus and huge costs. Why not spend that money on other, more immediate things?

We’re seeing the same complaints today. And I get it: Fuck these rich dudes for being shitty. But when it comes to spending a chunk of their funds on private space efforts, if it frees up government spending for other stuff, why the sour grapes? Do you think that the U.S. government could pull off tech of this sort? Nope. They would subcontract it out to even shittier companies in the defense sector.

So let the superyacht-class dick-measure to get more rockets into orbit. Good on them. The rest of us can focus our attention on what’s broken in our world today. After all, do you really want Bezos tackling child hunger? Do you want Musk trying to expand healthcare access? Do you want Branson to focus on voting rights?

Hell no.

In the meantime, while the three dweebs build more rockets and planes, I will be hoarding quarters in hopes of becoming a customer at some point. Let’s go to space. It’s what’s next, and I can’t wait.