In his 1982 high school graduation speech, Amazon founder and Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos regaled the audience with his pie-in-the-sky aspirations of building space hotels, amusement parks, and yachts to populate extraterrestrial colonies. Merely four decades later, he hasn't quite achieved his lofty goal, but he launched himself (and friends) into space via his self-funded space company—something that hadn't seemed possible for pretty much the entirety of human existence, up until a mad-dash billionaire traffic jam earlier this year.
Not so shabby given that space used to be only the province of astronauts who'd completed years of training, a select few of whom would eventually be lucky enough to see this pale blue dot from high up above. Now, it's for Bezos, and Virgin Galactic CEO Richard Branson, and Captain Kirk/William Shatner. But no longer, if Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) gets his way.
Sen. Bernie Sanders: "It is not acceptable that the two wealthiest people in this country, Mr. Musk and Mr. Bezos, take control of our space efforts to return to the Moon, […]This is not something for two billionaires to be directing." pic.twitter.com/Bi4VcXi08T
— The Hill (@thehill) November 18, 2021
"Frankly, it is not acceptable…that the two wealthiest people in this country, Mr. [Elon] Musk and Mr. Bezos, take control of our space efforts to return to the moon," said Sanders in a Senate floor speech criticizing components of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, which might include a $10 billion government contract awarded to Blue Origin. "This is not something for two billionaires to be directing; this is something for the American people to be determining."
It's fair to be critical of the market-distorting effects that public-private partnerships between NASA and commercial space exploration companies may have (just as it's fair to be critical of the way these companies' satellite internet projects routinely sic the Federal Communications Commission on each other in attempts to suppress competition). But he's not really fixating on that part when criticizing the bill on the Senate floor, instead launching yet another jeremiad against rich guys and their cool rockets.
In Sanders' flawed view of the world, billionaires cause the problems and central planners cough up the solutions—contra observable, real-world results.
Competition in the realm of non-NASA rocket development "has reduced the typical space launch cost by a factor of 20," according to a 2018 analysis that compared the cost of a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch to a NASA launch. There's good reason to believe that the course charted by commercial air travel—initially expensive, lengthy, less safe, and reserved for the elite few—will be mimicked by commercial space travel. Given this, there's no reason why the government, already deep in the hole, should be the only one authorized to pay for ambitious projects. Competition drives prices down; if a bunch of billionaires have cash that's burning holes in their pockets, it's good for them to spend it on astral passion projects. Those projects often result in spinoff technologies that eventually trickle down to regular consumers, or solve Earth's most vexing problems.
As I wrote in July:
NASA fans constantly tell us [that] the agency's spinoff technologies have improved the world. Sensors developed to measure and remove harmful moon dust have since been used to better detect air pollution here on Earth; advances in aerodynamics have made semi-trucks faster and more fuel-efficient than before; a more durable polymer material developed by NASA scientists is now used for hip replacements. It's easier than ever to get hot water on demand, to fly airplanes, and to get a life raft that will actually deliver you to safety if you're stranded at sea.
But a scientist need not be a public employee to make discoveries that better mankind. Musk and Bezos are competing to develop a satellite internet service that could drastically improve internet access and speed for unserved parts of the globe. SpaceX has been focused on improving the reusability of rocket components (while spending a fraction of what it would cost NASA to put similar rockets into flight), making space exploration cheaper and less wasteful.
Sanders tells on himself when he says that the space race "is not something for two billionaires to be directing; this is something for the American people to be determining." Note the difference between directing and determining; it's fine (albeit implausible) for the American people to tell their representatives they desperately want them to prioritize space exploration. But they can determine all they want without having the capacity to see the project through or the ability to inspire government efficiency. Joe the plumber can't execute on this project, start to finish, but Elon Musk legitimately can.
The state has far more money than anyone. But they are behind SpaceX, because tech isn't capital-limited, it's competence-limited.
After all, who knows more about rocket science — politicians or Musk? https://t.co/WQcbTCCLhj
— Balaji Srinivasan (@balajis) November 18, 2021
It's fashionable to snipe at billionaires for their frivolous-seeming pursuits, and Sanders has been yapping at Musk on Twitter for weeks now, probably recognizing that it plays well with his audience. But it's wrong for sitting senators to deny that the new space race is here, and it's awesome, and it just might deliver unforeseen benefits far beyond our wildest imaginations if we give it some time.
Speaking for myself, if socialists of any sort get their way and force me to stand in bread lines, pay exorbitant tax rates, or pledge allegiance to the Sandinistas, I relish my ability to someday flash a cosmo-passport, launch off this mortal coil, and take up residence on the moon. Sanders and his socialist pals would be both the ones creating the problem and the ones standing in the way, forcing people to remain forever trapped on this lame, politician-ransacked blue dot.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.