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20 July 2021

Why the billionaire space race is the colonial fantasy reborn

The quest by the super-rich to conquer outer space is a deluded attempt to sidestep the political conflicts and ecological damage of the old planet.

By Richard Seymour

An Earth-absconding journey to the outer edge of suborbital space. A glimpse of the planet as a blue marble. And beyond it, something infinite, the receding horizons of blackness, apt to evoke what the German theologian Rudolf Otto called the “numinous” experience of a mysterious terror. In principle, space tourism could be a spiritually shattering experience. In practice, it will merely generate new “rich kid” content for Instagram.

Whether the journey is taken on Elon Musk’s SpaceX programme, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin or Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, it will be brief and anticlimactic. For most of the travel time – 90 minutes on Virgin Galactic – passengers will be strapped to their seats. Once the outer edge of space is reached at 85 to 100km above the Earth’s surface, they might be allowed to unbuckle for a few minutes and experience micro-gravity. They might swim about in thin air, shoot footage, look down on earth-bound, toiling humanity, and then strap back in for the descent: more akin to a whizz on the London Eye than touching the face of God.

The bathos of space flight is not the fault of today’s billionaires, who would presumably like to offer luxury to their passengers. But luxury cannot exist in space. To stay alive beyond the Earth’s atmosphere for any length of time is to be confined to uncomfortably cramped quarters with a limited supply of air, packets of freeze-dried food, a carefully conserved and recycled body of water, all the while under constant surveillance by a ground crew. To be an astronaut is to experience time without day or night, napping together in sleeping bags that are strapped to the floor, and excreting into a vacuum. This is worse than air travel, and it isn’t even commercially viable. The most that the nascent space tourism industry can offer so far is a few minutes of astronaut cosplay.

For whom, then, is such a journey intended? Following his journey into suborbital space on 11 July, Branson declared in a triumphal speech that he intended to make space travel available for “everybody”. The claim is that space tourism will one day become a mass industry.

However, the cost of space flight is exorbitant. A trip on Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity will cost any prospective astronaut $250,000, of which a $10,000 deposit must be paid upfront. Among Branson’s first paying passengers will be Elon Musk, who messianically aspires to colonise Mars with his own SpaceX programme. Even a quarter of a million is small change compared to the spare seat on Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, which cost $28 million. For the foreseeable future the space flight market consists of “high net worth individuals”. Approximately 40 per cent of those with at least $5m in liquid assets are interested in space tourism. This is a privilege of the very rich, a bonus for class success.

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Nonetheless, it’s plausible that space tourism’s billionaire investors hope it will become a popular phenomenon. That was the whole point of privatising space, which since the 1960s has been a frontier for public sector enterprise. As with many of the technologies supporting the internet and smartphones, the fruits of enormous state investment over decades are being turned over to monopoly-capitalists precisely so that they can offer outsourced services to Nasa, and exploit whatever space markets may exist. Such was the premise when in 2004 the US Congress voted to allow the industry to self-regulate. The industry lobbied for this, saying that it was in a “learning period“, and would need time to innovate with the burdens of oversight.

[See also: Aliens in the age of anxiety]

The consequence of this for passengers is that they fly at their own risk, on vehicles uncertified by any authority. They sign waivers indicating that they’ve been made aware of the risks so that, if the craft blows up, the billionaire is covered. But this can’t go on forever. As space tourism’s market grows, it will be overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA): they announced in a press release on Monday that they had opened an office in Houston to better monitor the commercial industry. It is an open question, however, whether that will make space tourists any safer. As the lethal Boeing 737 Max crashes from October 2018 and March 2019 illustrate, the FAA is a notoriously ineffectual regulator. This is not only because it is underfunded but because its mandate includes the promotion of the industry it regulates. The same conflicting mandate applies to space tourism. The commercial pressures of delivering cheap transit for a mass audience would be much the same as in the airline industry. It would be surprising were there not a slew of disasters and defaults as it expands.

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Since the billionaire space race began when American businessman Dennis Tito visited the International Space Station in 2001, there have been extravagant claims for its environmental credentials. Virgin Galactic suggested that by being elevated 50 miles above the earth’s surface and seeing the famous “blue marble” earth, we would become more environmentally conscious. Less sentimentally, the company also vaunted its research on algae-based biofuels, hoping to avoid using carbon-emitting kerosene. It also suggested that even if it was forced to rely on kerosene, energy-efficiency would mean the emissions from Virgin’s space flight would be 60 per cent of those on a return flight from London to New York.

This was never plausible. Any form of flight, let alone space flight, requires an extremely high power/mass ratio, and it needs a high-density energy source. No one has yet discovered a way to sufficiently scale up the production of algae-based biofuels. So far, both SpaceX and Virgin Galactic have chosen to use the traditional aviation fuel, kerosene. They could have chosen liquid hydrogen which, though not viable for wide-bodied aircraft, is already a signature energy source in the US space programme. Bezos’s Blue Origin programme has developed a liquid hydrogen engine. The fuel doesn’t emit carbon during consumption, although the production of it does have a significant carbon footprint. One other difficulty, and presumably the reason Virgin and SpaceX stuck with kerosene, is that liquid hydrogen is a volatile substance which starts boiling at -252.8°C. This makes storage a serious issue, particularly once the goal is to transport more than a few people at a time.

[See also: Harvard’s top astronomer says our solar system may be teeming with alien technology]

What, then, of energy efficiency? According to Virgin Galactic’s highly debatable figures, VSS Unity flights emit 1.8 tonnes of carbon per passenger. We’re supposed to be delighted that this emission total is “less than a return economy class ticket from London to Singapore”. But flying from London to Singapore and back also covers over 20,000km. Flying to suborbital space and back covers only 200km. Emissions per passenger per mile are therefore considerably larger than those of any international flight, even by Virgin’s estimation. In any case, analysis by the astrophysicist Roland Lehoucq and colleagues suggests that a six-passenger flight on Virgin Galactic would more likely emit around 4.5 tonnes of carbon per passenger.

The carbon emitted by space travel is also delivered straight into the upper atmosphere, in a rapid pulse. This is a major shock to atmospheric chemistry. If a hundred or so annual space flights became several thousand, or millions, it could dramatically accelerate our greenhouse crisis. Given the huge costs and risks of space travel, it is not surprising that it required well-placed billionaires supported by the state, and working without regulatory oversight, to make commercial space tourism a reality. What is of more interest is that these same billionaires have so thoroughly taken to the romance of space travel.

It is striking, in this connection, that so many would-be astronauts and Mars colonisers are of a “libertarian” capitalist bent. Elon Musk has indicated that his Martian colony would be libertarian. Peter Thiel, a billionaire eulogist of space utopias, hopes to escape “politics in all its forms”, above all “social democracy”, in the starry skies.

This is the colonial impulse reborn. Early modern supporters of colonialism in the 16th and 17th centuries generally saw it as a means to escape the social conflicts of the old world, or as a safety valve releasing demographic pressures. Remarkably, in the the 17th century there was also a boom in speculative writing on space travel: it was always, complexly, a utopian aspiration with a colonial feel. A popular tract by the philosopher John Wilkins looked forward to The Discovery of a World in the Moone (1638), suggesting that it was populated by inhabitants for whom “as their world is our Moone, so our world is their Moone”. It should be possible to “finde out a conveyance to this other world, and if there be inhabitants there, to have commerce with them”.

Edmund Spenser’s epic poem “The Faerie Queen” (1590), which famously includes a visit to the moon on the way to “faerie land”, defends its propositions by reference to the colonisation of the New World: “Who ever heard of… The Amazon, huge river, now found true?/Or fruitfullest Virginia who did ever view?” The current billionaire effort to conquer outer space and sidestep the conflicts and ecological damage of the old planet would give a whole new meaning to what the historian Alfred Crosby once called the “biological expansion of Europe”.

Yet the colonial version of escape is a fantasy. The old world, in this case the world of class inequality, the neoliberal evisceration of science in the interests of commerce, and an energetic infrastructure dependent on choking the planet with carbon emissions, always comes with you.