This week saw the announcement by the Golden Spike Company of a plan to sell commercial passenger flights to the Moon. For a mere $1.5 billion each. This is your libertarian future, as so fondly imagined by various right-wing US science fiction authors: poverty endemic in all nations, while the One Percent get to fulfill their dreams in outer space. Of course, few of the ultra-rich can actually afford $1.5 billion, but don’t worry, there’s plenty of cash floating around in the public sector they can sequester. All they have to do is buy a couple of governments, and then persuade said governments to sell off their national assets: utilities, infrastructure, national healthcare…
This is the twenty-first century we can look forward to. All our dreams, the future of our race, we will have to experience vicariously. But that’s okay, because those dreams are about the only thing that can’t be taken away from us. Manipulation of the financial market means you will lose your house, selling off healthcare means injury or illness will beggar you, cost-cutting (AKA profit-maximising) and outsourcing means you will lose your job, tax avoidance by corporations and the ultra-rich means there’ll be no money for benefits to feed you or house you or keep you warm in the winter once you’re unemployed…
But at least someone will be having fun. Visiting the Moon.
It cost US taxpayers around $10 per person per year for a decade to put twelve men on the Moon with the Apollo programme. They did it for science, to beat the Soviets in the Space Race, and for humankind. There are a huge number of scientific and technological advances which spun out of Apollo. Computers and mobile phones as we know them likely would not exist but for the huge orders for integrated circuits – in their infancy at the time – placed by NASA for the spacecrafts’ guidance systems.
If we leave space travel in the hands of the ultra-rich – and that seems to be the way we’re going with all these dumb outer space tourist-jaunt proposals – then we are doomed to die when this planet can no longer support us. We will have no future as a race. And the way things are heading right now, we’ll be lucky to survive into the twenty-second century.
Remember all those space exploration sf novels of the 1940s and 1950s? NASA and the USSR demonstrated the reality was considerably more hazardous than had been imagined. So sf completely mythologised the whole endeavour – magical antigrav spaceships travelling light-years in days or hours using magical FTL drives. Those tropes are now so embedded in the genre, they’ve become part of the setting. I put together Rocket Science partly to question those tropes, to inject some realism back into space travel and outer space, to kickstart a new science fiction tradition based on the reality of space travel.
But what had never occurred to me – or to the genre as a whole, I suspect – is that space would become just another playground for the ultra-rich, just like one of those private Caribbean islands with beaches of golden sand and clear blue seas.
They have taken away our future. It’s time we stopped ignoring that fact in our fictions.
December 7, 2012 at 1:50 pm
“They have taken away our future. It’s time we stopped ignoring that fact in our fictions.”
Couldn’t agree more.
December 7, 2012 at 2:18 pm
So you’re not booking your seat just yet then Ian 😉
December 7, 2012 at 2:40 pm
I don’t really see what the problem is. All new technological innovations are initially only afforded by the rich until the procedures of production can be standardised and streamlined eventually making it affordable to more and more people.
Besides which, it’s not necessarily mutually exclusive. Because the rich are able to pay to put themselves on the moon, that’s not to stop anyone else doing it.
December 7, 2012 at 2:47 pm
You mean like all those historical examples of the rich being the first to explore somewhere and then it being settled by everyone else, such as… well, I can’t actually think of one. And yes, because only the rich can afford to go to the Moon, that does stop other people from going – because they can’t afford it.
And no, the ultra-rich do not generally buy into new technology and so subsidise mass production. No device on this planet has followed that pattern.
December 11, 2012 at 9:13 am
Sorry, you are obviously living in a parallel reality to me in which new technology isn’t really expensive when first released and then come down in price as production is streamlined.
And, let me get this straight, if the rich were stopped from going to the moon, other people would be able to afford it?
December 11, 2012 at 10:06 am
Name a single invention or item of technology that was funded by a rich person out of their own pocket, and then subsequently mass-produced and so available for all. I think you’ll find there aren’t any. Early adopters pay more for gadgets, and some of them may well be rich. But they didn’t fund the R&D or put up the capital for the gadget to be designed and manufactured.
If we stop the rich people, then space remains open for all – either funded by governments or pan-national agencies. If the rich make it their own preserve, then they put up barriers. Just like on those Caribbean islands.
December 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm
I didn’t say new technology was funded *up front* by rich consumers, but rather their willingness to pay the high prices of newly released technology helps the manufacturer recoup their development costs and continue production until the production process is streamlined.
In other words, the *expectation* of being able to sell a product initially at high unit prices allows entrepreneurs to rake the risk of investing in R&D for such products in the first place.
Now, there’s no reason something similar would not happen with space travel. If entrepreneurs are allowed to develop commercial space travel and enough rich tycoons are prepared to pay through the nose for access to this when it becomes available, the costs should eventually get driven down like any other technological developments.
The great thing about space is that it is so big and can easily accommodate us all without noticing. No one can own the moon and deny others entry. I don’t see what sort of barriers the rest of us might face, other than that of cost?
December 11, 2012 at 12:54 pm
The sheer magnitude of costs involved in space travel means that model doesn’t apply. No matter how streamlined a rocket gets (so to speak), you still throw away 90% of it to get into orbit. Costs will always remain high. It doesn’t matter how many rich people pay to visit the Moon, it will always be too expensive for everyone else to pay for out of their own pocket.
Re-usable launch vehicles are anticipated to bring the price per kilo to orbit down – though the Space Shuttle proved far more expensive to fly than planned – but their development is not driven by rich people but by corporations, who see that price tag as an operating cost. I’ve yet to be convinced the commercial space sector will achieve the goals we need to achieve as a race.
“No one can own the Moon”… Well, that would have to be policed, wouldn’t it? And who would pay for the law enforcers to go there and make sure the law is obeyed?
December 11, 2012 at 2:05 pm
You may be right, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Only time will tell…