By James Pethokoukis
This single-word tweet from New York Times columnist Charles Blow is worth highlighting and analyzing:
And this from the article referenced:
This decade will see the start and completion of construction on humanity’s first hotel in outer space, according to the group behind it, Orbital Assembly. The 3-year-old company plans to begin building Voyager Station in low Earth orbit in 2025, and believes its interstellar resort may be operational as soon as 2027, the Daily Mail reported. Renderings of the celestial hotel are cosmic-chic: Individual pods are attached to a rotating wheel, with tubes connecting the different areas forming an X, similar to the wheel’s spokes.
Why am I highlighting the tweet? Because it reflects a wrongheaded way of thinking about space, and it’s terribly frustrating when someone in such an influential position amplifies such a perspective.
First, the history of innovation is one where new products and services seem trivial or even toy-like at first. Only later do they diffuse more broadly through the economy and find substantial application. As Clayton Christensen writes in “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” “Apple sold its Apple IIe personal computer as a toy to children, not to the accounting departments of major banks.” Everything from automobiles to cell phones began as luxury items but eventually became important items of mass consumption. My parents never traveled to Europe or Asia, but I’ve been to both. I may never take a space-vaycay, but my kids might.
Second, The New York Times has been a long-time critic of mankind venturing into space. Back in the 1960s, the editorial boards saw Apollo as an unnecessary national prestige effort that distracted from important domestic issues, such as reducing poverty. Today, left-wing critics are launching similar attacks against Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos for their “billionaire space race.” Back in September, I raised this issue in a really great podcast chat with Charles Fishman, author of “One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon“:
The United States is a big country. We’re capable of doing even three or four things at once, not just one. And in the ‘60s, going to the Moon cost about $20 billion. There are three individual years of the Vietnam War, each of which cost more than the entire race to the Moon. So we could clearly afford to go to the Moon. That’s not a question.
Whether it was the right use of money is a separate question to whether we could afford it. So in the ‘60s, we tackled poverty, women’s rights, civil rights, voting rights — in dramatic ways. Economic inequality and gender inequality fell dramatically. The number of black Americans who voted for Lyndon Johnson compared to voting in the election of Kennedy and Nixon, I believe it was two times the number because of the passage of civil rights and voting rights. So we actually made progress on all those things. We didn’t fix them, and those problems still dog us.
What’s happening now is completely different. I think it is completely misleading to call what Elon Musk at SpaceX and Jeff Bezos at Blue Origin and, to some degree, Richard Branson at Virgin Galactic are doing a “billionaire space race.” Musk and Bezos are in business to change the business of space, to create a space economy. Just the way that Bezos created Amazon, their goal is very simple: They want to take something that has historically cost $100 million and bring the cost down to $1 million. What used to cost $100 million to launch to space will now cost $1 million. And when you do that, as you know, you completely change what’s possible.
We’re creating a new kind of economic platform. And we don’t know, just like in 1998 it wasn’t clear what the internet was going to unleash. But it has literally reached into everything from real estate to now we see these rocket launches from the perspective of the rocket as they’re going up. Everything is touched by it. I think 10 years from now, there will be dozens of people living and working in space and they will be creating economic value. Some will be paying their own bills. And I think 20 and 30 years from now, this moment that we’re living in now will look like the beginning of this remarkable transformation in which space becomes a much more tangible economy.
Third, I think for some anti-space folks — though not necessarily Blow — their revulsion is rooted in an anti-growth environmentalism. Oh great. Humanity has ruined Earth. Now it’s going to ruin the rest of the Universe. Which is ridiculous. The universe is a big place. Indeed, it’s full of stuff that can be quite helpful to us back on Earth. I love this bit from “Leviathan Wakes,” the first book of “The Expanse” series by James S. A. Corey: “Platinum, iron, and titanium from the Belt. Water from Saturn, vegetables and beef from the big mirror-fed greenhouses on Ganymede and Europa, organics from Earth and Mars. Power cells from Io, Helium-3 from the refineries on Rhea and Iapetus. A river of wealth and power unrivaled in human history came through Ceres.”
Such potential. And we’re going to reject it because some of us think Elon Musk should pay more in taxes or worry that the 0.01 percent will get to space before everyone else?