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The Space Waste

September 21, 2018

One of the year’s best magazine reads is Nicholas Schmidle’s outstanding article, “Rocket Man,” in the August 20th issue of the New Yorker. It’s the story of the test pilot Mark Stucky and his work with Virgin Galactic — the Richard Branson venture that hopes to begin carrying tourists into space.

While it wasn’t the author’s intent, the piece got me thinking.

Branson isn’t the only one pouring millions, or even billions of dollars into rockets. There’s an ongoing space race of sorts between three of the world’s most high-profile entrepreneurs: Branson, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk. Branson’s venture, focusing on suborbital space tourism, is the most modest of the three. Bezos’ company, called Blue Origin, is planning full-on orbital flights, while Musk’s SpaceX plans to operate huge reusable rocket ships and, eventually, to colonize Mars.

How realistic any of this is remains to be seen. But that’s not the point. The point is, succeed or fail, that so much money, resources, and brain power are being poured into what are essentially vanity projects. Yes, these are commercial companies that seek to make a profit. I get that. But these men (Bezos in particular) are already unfathomably wealthy and wield considerable influence in the realms of tech and elsewhere. Is it not a little, well, irresponsible of them to be so focused on outer space while, right here on planet Earth, things are in such desperate need of attention?

I’m talking about climate change, ecological destruction, overpopulation. The world is on the verge of environmental calamity; here are three guys who could actually, maybe, do something about it, or at least lead by example, and they’re talking about colonizing Mars. Am I the only one who finds this obnoxious?

I don’t know which of the three irks me more. The showman Branson has always been flamboyant and a little kooky, so I’ll give him a pass. (Plus he started a successful airline, and here at Ask the Pilot we dig airlines.) Jeff Bezos, though, is the richest person in the world. There’s just no excuse.

Still, it’s Musk who I find the most frustrating. His plans for space are by far the most audacious, and yet, meanwhile, he’s brought us some teasingly good innovations along the way. One wishes he’d prioritize those more strongly, and take the bigger step. If ever I found myself sitting next to him on an airplane, I’d say this:

Elon, why don’t you put aside space for a second. We have some enormous, impending problems right here on Earth, right now, that are going to impact everybody, and not in a good way. Civilization itself is going to face a crisis on a scale it has never seen before. You have wealth, power, and ideas. You have the chance to do something about it. Or at least try — it’s no better or worse of a wager than your extraterrestrial endeavors. And if ego is any part of this, consider: you have the chance to go down as one of the most important and influential people in history. Wouldn’t you prefer that be your legacy, rather than be remembered as the guy who built expensive electric cars and then squandered a fortune on a needless space fantasy?

This is a slippery philosophical slope, for sure. We expend huge sums of money on all sorts of superfluous things while people starve and major problems go unsolved. But somehow this feels different, and more urgent.

Richard, Jeff, and Elon, how about a conference call to maybe rearrange your priorities a bit. You can still pursue your space dreams, but maybe a bit later. At the moment, we kind of need you.

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