Amazon founder Jeff Bezos recently jetted to the edge of space and back in a rocket designed and built by his company Blue Origin. Not long before that, fellow billionaire Richard Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic, also traveled to the edge of space.
While both events were marked as milestones in ushering in a new era of commercial space travel, some space industry figures say there are inherent problems with giving business leaders the keys to space. These leaders also include SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who along with Bezos and Branson, has shown great interest in the space sector.
“They may not make the wisest or most ethical decisions for all of us,” said Jordan Bimm, a space historian at the University of Chicago.
According to Bimm, for Bezos and especially Musk, tourism is just one step in a grand vision of private space settlement. “Bezos envisions millions of humans living off-world in verdant cylindrical space stations. Musk, on the other hand, is fixated on Mars and establishing a million-person city there,” he added.
But this approach is perilous, according to Bimm. He said: “Can we trust them to establish just and humane off-world social and political orders?”
Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
The shift to privatized space travel could also shake up the way NASA operates in the future, Bimm said: “It could mean a revitalized NASA, or a NASA that shifts into more of a basic space science and advisory role to private companies doing human spaceflight.”
Billionaire business leaders are also changing the career path into the space industry, experts told Insider.
“What is changing is the type of elite person allowed to go there,” Bimm said. “Before, it was soldiers and later scientists, and now we are seeing the very wealthy and their handpicked companions added to this elite lineage,” he said.
Michael Brown, assistant professor from the School of Physics and Astronomy at Monash University, agreed, saying that in previous decades those chosen for spaceflight missions tended to be pilots, scientists, engineers, and doctors.
Back then, crews were also carefully selected by a committee of government experts. “Later on, novelist Tom Wolfe famously described what set these astronauts apart as ‘the right stuff’— essentially skill, bravery, and ego,” Bimm said.
But to get to space today, you simply need the “right funds” to buy a ticket, according to Bimm. Or “as we saw in the case of Oliver Daemen and Mark Bezos, the right family to buy a ticket for you.”
Bimm added: “The flight was exciting to watch but also raises key questions about the future: what, and more to the point, who is space for? Soldiers, scientists, and now the wealthy.”
There are many unanswered questions about how accessible space travel really is but according to Brown, “space billionaires are only broadening space access to space millionaires.” He said the access they provide is “limited to a couple of minutes of floating.”
Matthew Hersch, a historian of aerospace technology at Harvard University, said that although the invention of commercial space travel is great, demand from ordinary people seems low.
“We haven’t seen evidence that demand for space launch services is elastic enough to support selling launch services to average people, even if they can be offered cheaply enough,” Hersch added.
Article written by: Zahra Tayeb
Photo credit: Vanity Fair