This past week novelist Francine Prose wrote, “Every time a SpaceX rocket explodes, I wonder if we should tax the rich more”.
Ms. Prose is a humanist and is rightly concerned about humanity and its problems. But her comment is a common one, and yet it is grounded in a deep misunderstanding of the space industry, as well as what motivates the supporters of space exploration.
Note that I wrote “space exploration”, and not “space research”: space exploration is a separate endeavor from planetary research and other space endeavors that have a scientific focus.
The Assumption That It Is About Ego
I have lost count of the number of editorials that have equated SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and other rocket startups with vanity businesses, funded by rich men (they seem to be always men, so far, unfortunately) who are driven by creating a legacy in the form of big phallic rockets.
I cannot speak much about Jeff Bezos — in fact, in his case, the above-mentioned pundits might be right. I don’t know. Although I do know that space has been an interest of his since he was a child.
In the case of Richard Branson, he has a long history of philanthropy, and is a proponent of “B corporations” that seek to embed societal benefit into their mission. So I would question an assumption that he is driven entirely by ego, or even mostly by it.
But in the case of Elon Musk, I do know some things, having researched SpaceX and having spoken with people who have worked at SpaceX and interacted a lot with Musk.
Musk is entirely goal-driven. When he had made a fortune from selling PayPal, he allocated half of his fortune for his next project, which was to make the world a better place. He chose two areas: (1) transportation-related climate change, and (2) making humans interplanetary.
Okay here you might claim that making humans interplanetary is not making the world a better place. But in whose opinion?
Does art make the world a better place? What about science? What about sports? Every four years the world spends $50 billion on the Olympic Games. Do those make the world a better place? (I myself don’t watch the games and could not care less about them.) Every year Americans spend close to $100 billion on beauty products. Do those make the world a better place?
People have different values. Some people value art. (I do not.) Some people value science (I do). People have different ideas about what “makes the world a better place”.
Space exploration is hugely important to a lot of people. To them, space exploration makes the world a better place. It fulfills their dreams.
Here is a quote from a recent post to Twitter after the SpaceX launch of April 20:
“When Starship launched, the vibrations in the air and the deep rumbling sound were much more profound than I could have imagined. I could feel the intense pressure in the core of my heart. This was my first launch to ever attend in person! One of my kids was there and when I turned around he had tears of joy streaming down his face. ‘It made me realize my life priorities!’
“If Starship goes to Mars, we have a great chance of passing the great filter and becoming a multi-planetary civilization. If Starship doesn’t make it to Mars, if the program fails, it will still do one thing that is extremely valuable in the lives of people today: Give people hope where there wasn’t any before. Do you love waking up in the morning excited for the future? I know I do. This alone is justification enough for Starship.”
It’s really important to some people. Me included. Thankfully no one can take it away, in order to reflect their priorities.
The Assumption That It Is a Zero Sum Trade Off
The claim that we are spending money on space when we could be solving the world’s problems is deeply misguided. For one thing, it assumes that more money will solve those problems. And remember that if you give that money to certain causes, you steal the dream of all those who see space exploration as important.
It was Carl Sagan who expressed the logical dilemma. He called it the “short-term vs. long-term” fallacy:
“A subset of the excluded middle, but so important I’ve pulled it out for special attention (e.g., We can’t afford programs to feed malnourished children and educate pre-school kids. We need to urgently deal with crime on the streets. Or: Why explore space or pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?).”
In other words, it makes no sense to put all our money into certain things and completely starve other things that many people find valuable. It makes more sense to have a portfolio of investment that balances people’s varying values. And that is what we are doing.
The Assumption That Billionaires are Funding It
But what about these rocket explosions? Isn’t that a waste? These are development tests. Vehicles get destroyed during development testing. Astronaut Chris Hadfield recently posted videos of the F14 and F16 crashing during early testing. (No one died.)
Those crashes are a normal and necessary aspect of development testing.
In the case of SpaceX, the funds are coming from SpaceX — not from a billionaire. Ms. Prose’s comment that the rich should be taxed more might be correct, but it does not follow at all from the SpaceX situation. SpaceX is a hugely profitable company, and the Starship rocket is its next generation launch system. It will lower the cost to orbit drastically, because it is fully reusable. The launch business is big business, and we all depend on it now, for satellites that help us to predict the weather and many other humanity-enriching things, not to mention defense — and it was SpaceX’s satellites that gave Ukraine Internet access when they needed it.
During the early days of SpaceX, Musk funded it with his own money — down to his last penny. He spent his entire fortune keeping SpaceX and Tesla going. But both companies recovered, and no rich person is funding them anymore. They are both profitable and have no trouble getting investors.
Tax the rich? Sure. But carefully, because Elon Musk used his money well: he invested it in shifting transportation to electricity, and it is SpaceX that has restored America’s ability to get astronauts to the Space Station.
Maybe instead of this constant focus on Elon Musk, those who like to call out the rich should focus on some of the narcissistic super rich media stars who seem to escape this particular kind of critical attention. I wonder what Beyoncé has done to make the world a better place? Or what about Bernard Arnault — the richest person in the world, whose great achievement is selling Louis Vuitton handbags and and diamonds? Or what about the Kardashians, who make the world a better place by going to parties? Or heck — what about private equity firms? And if these people have done anything for others, was it merely by writing a check? Or is it taking their full time? And do they live in a tiny house like Elon Musk?