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6 June 2019updated 07 Sep 2021 9:33am

Rocket man: why Jeff Bezos wants to take humans into space

By Eleanor Penny

“We’re going to build a road to space. And then, amazing things will happen”, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently announced when revealing his plans for Blue Origin, an aerospace manufacturing venture that will build the infrastructure for humans to inhabit outer space. His utopian vision is one of extra-planetary colonisation, where people live free from misery, supported by a life system that could produce a thousand Mozarts and a thousand Einsteins.

It might seem strange that a man whose business model leaves employees struggling to buy food, sleeping in tents and urinating in bottles to avoid workplace penalties would still retain such an exquisite capacity for romance. In truth, these flights of fantasy are subsidised by the squalor of his workforce: the abysmal working conditions of an average Amazon employee are the bedrock of its stratospheric fortunes. Amazon’s UK employees are paid £10.50 an hour in London, and £9.50 outside the capital. Bezos’ net worth meanwhile stands at $139.8bn dollars.

He’s not alone in his newfound interest in space. Elon Musk is also dreaming of the cities he will build among the stars. Why shouldn’t they? History shows that the yawning chasms of space are sufficiently capacious to accommodate peoples’ competing utopias. In the second century AD, Lucian of Samosata wrote A True Story, a satire of extra-planetary conflict and colonisation. In 1602, Italian philosopher and astrologer Tommaso Campanella’s The City of the Sun foresaw a society where all property was held in common, and everyone worked a mere four hours a day. He was tortured for his heresy, narrowly avoiding a death sentence for life in prison.

In 19th century Russia, cosmist and post-humanist Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov thought space exploration was key to overcoming humanities’ biological boundaries. Fyodorov’s associate, the pan-psychic philosopher and father of space travel Konstantin Tsiolkovsky advanced a vision of humanity escaping planetary boundaries that blended Orthodox mysticism, science, and brewing republicanism. A supporter of the revolution, Koliovsky didn’t sit well with the Soviet regime; he was briefly imprisoned by the secret police for anti-Soviet writings. During the space race, Alexander Bogdanov’s book Red Star described Martians inviting humans to see the communist paradise they had built on Mars. In Privateers by Ben Bova (1985), billionaire space pirate Dan Randolph defeats the Russians to secure American access to the solar system’s resources.

These are not merely fantasies. Each utopia is a declaration of intent, a heavenly blueprint or funhouse reflection on authors’ extra planetary intentions. Bezos and his technological peers aren’t joking. Silicon Valley and tech-heavy Seattle have rapidly become the epicentres of a new boom in spacefaring business. Elon Musk’s Space X was the first private enterprise to deliver to the International Space Station. Virgin pre-sold tickets to fund the first commercial flights into the outer atmosphere. Spaceflight Industries offers “ride-shares” for smaller satellites to hitch lifts on larger ventures. Planet offers digital satellite imagery, and Spire deals in satellite-driven data analytics “so that business and can make smart decisions”.

There’s an estimated $700bn worth of precious minerals – iron and nickel, gold and platinum and more – In Earth’s asteroid belt alone. Mining initiatives like Planetary Resources and the UK’s Asteroid Mining Corporation are scrambling to conquer the new gold rush. It’s likely that these rare minerals will become even more precious in the coming years, as they’re key to fossil-free energy technologies like solar panels, electric cars and energy-saving light bulbs. Silicon Valley Space Center’s Sean Casey (formally of Nasa) has championed a “regulatory framework that allows for the growth of the industry”.

The US government has obliged. In April, the US House of Representatives passed the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, to “ensure that the United States remains the world leader in commercial space activities” by extending the protections of private property beyond the humble bounds of the planet. “Outer space”, it declared, “shall not be considered a global commons.”

Indeed, Bezos has opined that space exploration was the obvious choice – not just to fulfil the oncoming economic upheaval of a 21st century marked by ecological and economic crisis, but simply because no other industry could possibly absorb the billions of dollars he has to spend; his personal fortune is many times that of Nasa’s total budget.

Enormous risky investments are usually not the purview of private enterprises that want to placate their stakeholders; there’s a reason that much of the prior astro-engineering research and development has been funded by the public sector, which is less constrained by the profit motive. But these are exactly the kind of “moonshots” driving a Silicon ethic of eternal creative destruction. Venture capital backs flashy investment opportunities in the hopes of one day winning big.

And undergirding many of these venture business models is the under-discussed twin of vertical integration: market capture. When you overhaul the economy with a new technology, you possess the technology on which the new economy is built. Those who destroy creatively can accrue huge profits from the wreckage.

Amazon has been accused of “dumping” – artificially deflating its own prices to drive competitors out of business, before driving up prices once it has established a monopoly. It currently enjoys nearly 50 per cent of US online retail sales. Uber has tried to do the same. Its speculative profit model is based on the idea that low prices and convenience drive out competitors. Its recent IPO filing reveals that this $50bn company may never file an actual profit.

Space X has set its sights on a satellite network that will deliver broadband to the whole world at a far lower price than a government equivalent. Musk sells this as a dazzling new frontier of human communication. Perhaps so – but it’s also a very good business move. Whoever builds the new railways will be the new Astral Rockefeller. Whoever can charge tolls on the new silk roads stretching out into the stratosphere will reap huge rewards.

Capitalism must grow. This ravenous dictum sits at the heart of its system. In order to do so, as philosopher Rosa Luxemburg noted, capitalism must have a periphery: a zone for capturing more untapped markets. This has guided the steady march of this economic system from the enclosure of common land in early modern England to the brutal march of colonialism. Cecil Rhodes, one of British imperialism’s most dedicated villains, once said “expansion is everything… I would annex the planets if I could.

Now more than ever, global capitalism is desperately scrambling about for new frontiers on an exhausted planet with dwindling resources – a planet it has already conquered. Radical geographer David Harvey has noted that this economic system needs $1.5tn in profitable investment opportunities per year to maintain its historic average of 3 per cent growth. That figure will only grow larger.  

We already know of 2000 planets. Near-earth asteroids are brimming with minerals. For those committed to capitalism’s longevity, plumbing such new opportunities is a more obvious and sensible solution to structural crisis than deep and thorough going economic reforms that might challenge the profit motive. Space, it turns out, is just another frontier.

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