The idea of billionaires launching themselves into space on their own rockets has provoked apoplexy from some progressives, who view the spectacle as an ostentatious display of economic inequality that must be fixed with a wealth tax.
Witness the response to Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson's successful journey to the edge of space yesterday on his company's Unity spaceship.
The flight—which carried Branson and five other crew members more than 50 miles above the Earth's surface—represents an important milestone for the nascent private space tourism industry. But several commentators were only concerned with what the British billionaire's money could have funded instead.
On Twitter, Mother Jones' Clara Jeffery declared it an "advertisement for a wealth tax":
Billionaires is space is one giant advertisement for a wealth tax pic.twitter.com/yHt1In4EEF
— Clara Jeffery (@ClaraJeffery) July 11, 2021
Journalist Teddy Schleifer said on CNN that the press should cool its jets when covering billionaires' space travels, saying that "it's impossible to talk about the billionaire's success without talking about the system that creates this in the first place."
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) struck a familiar dyspeptic note:
Here on Earth, in the richest country on the planet, half our people live paycheck to paycheck, people are struggling to feed themselves, struggling to see a doctor — but hey, the richest guys in the world are off in outer space!
Yes. It's time to tax the billionaires.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) July 11, 2021
Rep. Ro Khanna (D–Calif.) asked, a few days before Branson's launch, whether that money could be spent on health care and education rather than "space travel fantasies."
Should billionaires play out their space travel fantasies, or should we invest in schooling, provide healthcare, and create prosperity for everyone?
We need a wealth tax.https://t.co/PrpnWgxoev
— Ro Khanna (@RoKhanna) July 7, 2021
Khanna doesn't see such a stark trade-off with the government's own resources, given his co-sponsorship of the "Endless Frontiers Act," the initial version of which would have given $100 billion to the National Science Foundation to research such sci-fi ideas as artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Surely that money could be spent on health care too? And Khanna is a member of Congress' "NASA Caucus," so he isn't objecting to spending money on space exploration per se.
In any case, billionaire-backed space companies—which includes not just Branson's Virgin Galactic but also Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and Elon Musk's SpaceX—can help to eliminate wasteful space spending. That's certainly the case with SpaceX. Back in May 2020, the company's Crew Dragon vehicle ferried NASA astronauts to the International Space Station from American soil for the first time since 2011, when the accident-prone Space Shuttle was retired.
To develop and launch Crew Dragon, SpaceX received a $2.6 billion contract from NASA through the agency's Commercial Crew Program. In comparison, the Constellation program run directly by NASA—which had a similar goal of developing a launch system for putting astronauts in low-earth orbit—was estimated to cost closer to $34.5 billion.
SpaceX was "effectively doing what the Constellation Program was doing with about the same amount of money, total, that they were burning in a single month," NASA engineer Mike Horkachuck told ArsTechnica's Eric Berger.
The billionaire class is going to space decades after government did it first, using surplus resources that should have gone to finance that government but didn't, and then using that dubious achievement as proof that they are more efficient than government.
— Anand Giridharadas @ The.Ink (@AnandWrites) July 12, 2021
In time, the competition between these various private ventures will put yet more downward pressure on prices while spurring the development of new, better space technology—helping the government's space efforts as well as the private sector's.
Even if you aren't convinced of the value of space travel, given that we've yet to reach a utopia free of poverty, disease, and war here on Earth, there's something to be said for a private space industry soaking up the legions of engineers and other aerospace professionals who might otherwise be spending their careers designing faster-flying missiles for traditional military contractors.
The private space industry has problems from a libertarian perspective too. SpaceX and Blue Origin are primarily in the business of competing for government contracts. New Mexico taxpayers shelled out $220 million to fund Virgin Galactic's desert launch facility.
Yet even a rigid ideologue like Ayn Rand was able to see some good in government-funded space travel. "Nothing on earth or beyond it is closed to the power of man's reason," she wrote of the Moon landing. "This is the fundamental lesson to be learned from the triumph of Apollo 11."
Her criticism of space flight's detractors also rings only truer today. Their attitude, she wrote, "penalizes the good for being good, and success for being success."