Why Are Billionaires Like Jeff Bezos So Interested in Space?

By Marshall Auerback, a market analyst and commentator. Produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute

The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing is this year, and it’s worth recalling the memo that then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson wrote to President John F. Kennedy: “If we do not make the strong effort now, the time will soon be reached when the margin of control over space and over men’s minds through space accomplishments will have swung so far on the Russian side that we will not be able to catch up, let alone assume leadership.”

That sense of urgency has shifted over the decades from government to the private sector, where billionaires like Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, among others, are displaying profound enthusiasm in regard to the notion of exploiting space. Their interest appears to go well beyond space tourism for the thrill-seeking one-percenters, even though that’s what gets most of the media attention. As Cathal O’Connell reports for Cosmos Magazine, “Already companies are sending up 3D printers to produce replacement tools in space. Next we could see orbiting factories making products for sale on Earth or automated robots constructing satellites the size of a football field.”

If this all seems as exotic as those old 1930s “Flash Gordon” films did to the audiences of the day, recall that the experience of the Apollo 11 moon landing showed that reality has a way of catching up quickly to Hollywood fantasy (it also shows that when sufficient government resources are harnessed to a higher common purpose, good results can happen surprisingly quickly and efficiently). Once the likes of Bezos, Branson, Musk, and others find a way to economically hoist heavy machinery into space (and it is becoming more economic), permanent “off-Earth” manufacturing could become a reality. But this raises an interesting issue: who chooses the technological alternatives that set out our future? Should this decision solely be left in the domain of the private sector? Should space be privatized in this matter? What about NASA? Consider the future: Forget about the threat of moving a Midwestern plant from, say, Ohio, to Mexico or China. Next time, it could be a robot-filled factory in space that takes your job.

To be clear, nobody is suggesting a return to medieval-style craft guilds. At the same time, it is worth noting certain salient aspects about technology: rather than acting in the service of mankind, technology has often been used in a way that creates a momentum of its own that establishes limits or controls what becomes socially possible. It is wrapped in an aura of linear progress and scientific inevitability, conveniently ignoring that its benefits are often skewed most heavily to the power brokers who initiate and champion its use. This is a principle danger of subcontracting space to billionaire plutocrats, whose ambitions and interests might be inconsistent with society’s broader public purpose. This is to say nothing of the increasing de-skilling of labor that could follow, if they are not integrated into this process somehow.

Asthe Wall Street Journal’s Greg Ip notes, the government-sponsored race to the moon spurred considerable “advances in computers, miniaturization and software, and found its way into scratch-resistant lenses, heat-reflective emergency blankets and cordless appliances,” all of which had tremendous benefits for society as a whole. But today, the government has largely lost its “moonshot mindset” and space, in turn, has increasingly become the focus of the oligarch class, seeking to enhance profit opportunities as well as exploiting the increasing trend of displacing human labor with machines. This is despite the fact that Professor Seymour Melman’s own researchillustrated that if you give workers decision-making power on the shop floor, productivity tends to increase substantially.

Without a doubt, there are many benefits to be derived from the work being done in the cosmos. For example, the microgravity conditions pertaining in space are considered ideal for developing materials, such as protein and virus crystals, observes Sarah Lewin, in a piece discussing the incipient development of “off-Earth manufacturing.” The insights developed by these crystals could enhance drug research and provide useful new therapies and medical treatments for infections and diseases (such as heart disease and organ transplants). Space also enhances the scope for producing high-tech materials, whose production is otherwise adversely affected by the Earth’s gravity, one example being a “fiber-optic cable called ZBLAN, … [which, w]hen manufactured in microgravity… is less likely to develop tiny crystals that increase signal loss. When built without those flaws, the cable can be orders of magnitude better at transmitting light over long distances, such as for telecommunications, lasers and high-speed internet,” according to Lewin.

We shouldn’t be oblivious to the considerable human costs associated with work in the government’s space program—“Microgravity sets our fluids wandering and weakens muscles, radiation tears through DNA and the harsh vacuum outside is an ever-present threat” (to quote Lewin), to say nothing of the risk of death itself—which are mitigated considerably when you can do things with machines alone. At the same time, left unchallenged or unmonitored, these billionaires could use space to quietly initiate further radical changes to our social structures.

It starts with ownership models. There’s an interesting paradox of futuristic 24th-century economic visions in space being built on the 12-to-13th–century ownership models that make up Silicon Valley. Wealth sharing ownership models should be conceived as part of the futuristic vision if we don’t want to be saddled with human wealth disparities reaching factors of 12 or 15 zeros. Ideally, NASA (or some other space agency) should take a leading national developmental role in the production of goods in space, and then subcontract to manufacturers to do the actual production processes, rather than the other way around.

Of course, if the government does ultimately decide that space privatization is not a great thing, no doubt Silicon Valley and its market fundamentalist champions will trot out the line about the inefficient government fighting “technological inevitability”—a typical playbook from the Silicon Valley oligarchs (i.e., you can’t fight technological progress, so let’s just set up something like a Universal Basic Income—UBI—that acts like a painkiller, but masks the symptoms of economic injustice and fails to address the underlying causes of exploitation and inequality). That’s one major risk of “off-Earth” production when it becomes a plaything of the rich alone. That’s to say nothing of the fact that the billionaire class is already benefiting from a long series of government-funded innovations undertaken in the past, as Professor Marianna Mazzucato has illustrated in her work, “The Entrepreneurial State.”

One of which was the government-led (and funded) space program: at its funding peak, the lunar space program employed over 400,000 Americans. The management, national commitment and personal motivation of the participants were just as important as the technology itself in terms of ensuring the program’s success. It’s hard to see that sort of coalescing of interests in the absence of an overriding government stake when it comes to the production of manufactured goods in an environment outside a planetary atmosphere.

There is another unhealthy aspect to uncritically acceding to a paradigm in which supposedly superhuman entrepreneurs are selflessly taking up the baton from a tapped-out public sector. It becomes self-serving for the billionaires, and implicitly justifies and entrenches the economic status quo. As journalist Amanda Schafferhas argued: “If tech leaders are seen primarily as singular, lone achievers, it is easier for them to extract disproportionate wealth. It is also harder to get their companies to accept that they should return some of their profits to agencies like NASA and the National Science Foundation through higher taxes or simply less tax dodging.” That self-entitlement also manifests itself in other ways. Just look at the way that Elon Musk treats his own employees to get a better sense of this. Or Jeff Bezos’s labor practices at Amazon.com.

It’s undoubted that orbital manufacturing will yield innovations in technology, medicine and material science in the next few decades. But we should recall that technology doesn’t simply have an autonomous momentum and direction that inexorably leads to social progress. Likewise, it bears recalling (as Professor Seymour Melman once observed) that technology “is applied in accordance with specific social criteria wielded by those with economic decision power in the society.” Melman’s implicit argument is that technology can be used to enhance worker control or to create more yet alienation. The government, therefore, shouldn’t be reduced to the role of passive minority shareholder collecting dividends or royalties from a privately run space enterprise. That’s the old market fundamentalist model that has failed pretty badly on this planet, let alone replicating it in space. So before we get too wrapped up in all of the exciting new goodies that Jeff Bezos and his fellow space enthusiasts can create for us, let’s also ensure that this move to “the final frontier” doesn’t simply become a new form of technological control and enslavement, in which the benefits continue to be distributed in a profoundly illiberal direction as they are here on planet Earth.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    As someone from the generation who grew up space-obsessed after the Apollo missions – through my teenage years I was an avid reader of Omni and all the other science magazines and sci-fi books that promoted our future in the stars – I can appreciate that the likes of Bezos and Musk simply treat this as a very expensive hobby, a bit like other billionaires racing $100million sailing ships or whatever.

    I’m deeply sceptical that there are real benefits to space for the private sector for a century at least. There are basic laws of physics which makes putting hardware up there very expensive. In reality, we aren’t that much more advanced than half a century ago, when the US and Soviets were regularly putting several ton loads up into high orbits and men walked in space (nothing is funnier than congratulating Musk fan-boys by pointing out that he’s just matched the tech achievements of the USSR around 1962). In many ways, we now know how much harder it is – there seems to be very fundamental problems with having humans live in zero gravity and exposed to the sun without an atmosphere to protect us. I think it will be a long time before a space station could make even the most hyper specialised product profitably compared to a ground based factory.

    The reality is that the only money the private sector can make, or will make in the short to medium term, is from government contracts. I suspect that in the medium term, this is solely the target for the current crop of billionaires. After all, everything we know about their businesses is that they are obsessed with the share price timescale, which simply doesn’t allow for multi-decade investment cycles. For them, its like being in the defence business profit-wise, without having to get too grubby over building bombs.

    As an aside, I do like the point about space needing a focused community effort. One of the interesting paradoxes about the space race was that the US ultimately won by taking a rigorously centralised effort, while the Soviets approached it by encouraging different design bureaus to compete. But the Soviet effort to reach the moon floundered due to infighting between bureaus leading to a loss of momentum. Perhaps there is a lesson there.

    1. voteforno6

      I agree with quite a bit of what you wrote (I also had a subscription to Omni, by the way). Manufacturing in a near-Earth orbit might certainly be better for certain items, but there is still a simple problem of logistics. Where do they get the raw materials from? After that, how do they get the finished products back down to Earth? Maybe the best option for that (this one’s for all you sci-fi enthusiasts out there) is to develop a space elevator first.

      1. False Solace

        Agreed, space-based industry will remain a hobby for bored superpowers and billionaires with more money than sense until we build a space elevator. And there are no known materials capable of withstanding the stresses. Interestingly, we could build a space elevator on Mars with existing materials since its gravity is low enough. Unfortunately Mars also has a moon that regularly intersects the equator, and there’s no way of getting the necessary materials there.

        It just ain’t in the cards. Guess we’d better focus on keeping this planet livable. That’s going to be a big enough challenge to keep everyone busy for centuries.

    2. Marshall Auerback

      That’s a fascinating observation about the Soviet program which is new information to me. I was always under the impression that Korolev pretty well ran the show in the USSR (did the fracturing start after he died?)/

      Do you have any source material that describes this further, as I’d be fascinated to learn more on this? Thanks!

      1. vlade

        I could give you a very good source on various Soviet programmes, but you’d have to learn Czech :).

        Or, you could try to contact Karel Pacner (who can speak English, he spent years in correspondence on Soviet space program with Charles S. Sheldon), and is IMO one of the world authorities on it (and has way less prejudices leading to inaccuracies than the Russian ones).

      2. PlutoniumKun

        My mind has gone blank about where I read about the Soviet effort, it might even have been from an NC link. I think its quite well established though that just like for the military, the Soviets liked to have different Bureau (in reality, companies) compete for the same project until procurement decisions were made at the last minute.

        The Wikipedia entry on the N1 (the Soviet equivalent of the Saturn V) goes into some detail on the personality clashes that hampered the project.

        Maybe they should have grabbed more Nazis.

    3. Carolinian

      Bezos’ ideas about space are not unlike Bezos’ ideas about delivering packages via quadcopter. We shouldn’t necessarily take them too seriously. Musk is more engineering oriented and is doing things the Soviets most definitely did not do in 1962 such as landing rocket boosters back on the launch site. One thing the current blitz of Apollo lookbacks make clear is that the technological leadership can make a difference. Von Braun encouraged Kennedy to set the Moon as his goal in the propaganda race against the Soviets because that would require a new, giant rocket that only he could develop. This turned out to be the case (the Russian giant rocket blew up).

      It’s hard to see another USG space effort as long as “the era of big government is over” (as proclaimed by one of our “liberals”). Even at the time in the ’60s many protested the expense and the priorities. NASA has a plan to go back to the Moon but predicated on private companies doing much of the work. Hopefully this won’t involve quadcopters.

      1. Plenue

        “Musk is more engineering oriented and is doing things the Soviets most definitely did not do in 1962 such as landing rocket boosters back on the launch site”

        VTVL isn’t actually new technology. NASA and the Soviets both investigated it and found it just wasn’t that useful. It remains not terribly useful. It takes a lot of work and money to refurbish a used rocket to where it can be safely used again. It’s cheaper to just build a new one.

        At best Musk is just retreading what McDonnell Douglas already did in the 1990s. God, he’s such a grifter.

        1. Dirk77

          Or look at the Space Shuttle program. 10K people in Florida to keep them running. A problem I’m sure will plague the JSF it ever becomes fully used.

        2. Carolinian

          Whether or not your assertions are correct (links?) the fact remains that Musk is doing things the Soviets did not do and making them work. Conceiving something and doing it are different. So I’d say this puts him a cut above Bezos who is all grift.

    4. Gordon

      Although there’s much chatter about space-based manufacturing, I doubt it will amount to much, a little R&D apart, for the foreseeable future. As PK says, the basic laws of physics work against this.

      However, what Elon Musk is aiming at in the medium term isn’t manufacturing but communications – specificially Starlink, his satellite-based global communications system that will give high speed Internet connection anywhere on the planet.

      The full network will comprise an astonishing 11,943 satellites which are already being launched into low orbit 60 at a time with limited revenues starting fairly soon and well before global coverage is achieved.

      Some projections suggest that by 2020 revenues could top $30bn and profits $20bn.

      Astronomers are not happy about all those satellites messing up their view of the heavens.

    5. Oh

      The reality is that the only money the private sector can make, or will make in the short to medium term, is from government contracts. I suspect that in the medium term, this is solely the target for the current crop of billionaires.

      That’s right. These guys want to make money from space exploration where the major part of the investment is paid for by the government and they get it for a song. That’s what Musk has been doing using his sweetheart contract with NASA. Same with Bezos who has a sweet deal for his servers. It’s time to take back these contracts and have the USG employ engineers, scientists and labor for a direct effort in these areas with no profiteers in the middle.

  2. Zamfir

    It’s undoubted that orbital manufacturing will yield innovations in technology, medicine and material science in the next few decades

    Is this really undoubted? The ISS has spent decades on testing such ideas, and nothing ever came of it. The tests were mostly a gloss, busywork to make the program look less pointless.

    You see the same with all those spinoff advances that supposedly came from the NASA space program . Look into them deeper, and its usually stuff that was getting developed anyway (if only for military missiles). NASA has always had an active PR department to sell such spinoffs to help justify its budget. And companies were quite willing to accept the space glamour, even if they knew better.

    1. Summer

      “NASA has always had an active PR dept..”

      The one in existence in 1969 should be the envy of the world.
      Broke the mold in PR

    2. James McFadden

      That was the exact quote that caught my eye — especially the “undoubted” part — spoken like a true marketer.

      As someone who also idealized space adventures as a kid, then spent a career building space instruments paid for by NASA (i.e. taxpayers), it is clear that institutions like NASA quickly devolved from an amazing mission specific effort for national prestige (very successful in the 60s) into another government bureaucracy designed primarily to funnel money to the military industrial complex. However, unlike the weapons industries that are used to create death, destruction, and poverty in their support of corrupt dictatorships, NASA does manage to support a small amount of science from its budget which might someday prove useful. But anyone who has worked in this field and been exposed to the complexities of operations in space would know, or has a rudimentary understanding of the ecological complexities of closed systems would know, the idea of mass manufacturing in space, or the creation of human colonies, in the next 100 years (if ever considering climate chaos and ecosystem collapse) is pure fantasy. There is a misconception that the rapid advances seen in computers and other technologies (and also observed during the 1960s space program) have continued at that same pace in NASA’s technological growth – they haven’t. Sure, computers have been miniaturized, some new technologies have been invented, but this insider sees a slowing in both the innovation and capabilities (we can’t duplicate today what was done in the 60s – a human mission to the moon). The bureaucracy that has grown so bloated, with risk aversion (CYA) the primary concern for a NASA now driven by PR to assure its budget is not cut, that little funding actually goes into innovation. Profits for industry are higher if you just use the old off-the-shelf parts designed 30 years ago, and NASA is happy with this choice since it has higher TRL (Technology Readiness Level – a mostly meaningless way to quantify risk). Many of the science missions are more about generating positive PR for NASA with some “new” recycled or incremental discovery the public can understand, then about doing something unique which is risky — the same reason we keep getting sequels in Hollywood.

  3. Brooklin Bridge

    There is also something self defeating about a process of mass production that cuts the masses out of the loop (no earners, no consumers). I suppose a perversion of MMT combined with a society level dole might work for a while, but the whole thing seems screwy, unworkably lopsided and spoiled bratty (that last being the answer to the title of the article).

  4. jefemt

    Envision the blue-marbleous earth that is shown in those amazing pics from Apollo era.

    Now THERE is a spaceship!? Sublime and elegant in its unfathomable ‘engineering’.

    Wish those rich mofos would put a wee bit of effort getting it cleaned up and sharing its bounty with all.

    Somehow, my sense is the only successful space exploration will be when folks minds are downloaded onto microparticles and beamed out to space… any reliance on mechanical ‘ships’ seems doomed, at least that has been my experience with anything crafted by humans— crap breaks down, fails, and one can’t walk over to the hardware for the fix in space.

    We have it all here, at our fingertips. And look where we have taken ourselves and our spaceship.

    Spaceship earth, hurtling along at a million MPH, with Palestineans, Israelis, Saudis, Iranians, USA and everyone else, Pakistanis and East Indians…

    Swords into ploughshares, clean water, nutritious uncontaminated food, and warm secure shelter for all. A place for all species. Everyone cooperating to preserve our collective home.
    There is a laudable goal I have yet to hear Bezos, Branson, or Musk elucidate. They can’t seem to leave the sinking ship fast enough. Maybe they ARE the smartest guys in the room.


    1. tom pfotzer

      jefemt: Right on. You have all the right project goals, but humans have to implement them, and current events and tens of thousands of years of human history indicate a fundamental problem: how the human brain is architected.

      We’re stuck.

      The reason the rich want to bug out is that they, probably better than most of us, understand human nature and how precarious our situation is.

      When I was a boy, whenever I (frequently) tried to run away from the problems caused by my own (flawed) character, my Dad told me “wherever you go, you take yourself with you”.

      Humans can go to space, or cyberspace. But wherever we go we take us, and our flawed nature (brain architecture and current socialization mechanisms/institutions) with us.

      This is why humans fear AI. We’re worried that it’ll be like us, only faster.

      1. False Solace

        > The reason the rich want to bug out is that they, probably better than most of us, understand human nature and how precarious our situation is.

        Indeed. Sociopaths have remarkably few illusions.

    2. Oh

      We need to find a way to upload (ASAP) Bezos, Branson, Musk and the other rent extracting scum into space where they can revolve around the earth and slowly disappear.

  5. Samuel Conner

    The proliferation of orbiting debris may make in-orbit manufacturing more expensive than the optimists hope. Years ago, I read that it was possible that a slow-motion “chain reaction” was already underway (unexplained satellite failures possibly attributable to impacts with debris, and each impact creates more debris).

    It may become necessary to armor orbital facilities against such events, which may significantly increase the cost to loft their components into orbit.

    1. rd

      Cleaning up space debris could be a “tax” imposed on private space development but who would enforce it? Space is on its way to becoming a new ocean where everybody just dumps their trash and assumes it just goes away.

    2. David Mayes

      I would certainly consider Elon Musk’s plan to put almost 12,000 satellites into orbit around the earth as part of the “orbiting debris” project.

    3. lyman alpha blob

      And related to your point, it isn’t just existing space debris we need to worry about. What happens when the oribital factories sucumb to entropy and become debris themselves? Much like nuclear power, orbital manufacturing would seem to require a long term functional society on the ground. If Bezos builds a space factory and Amazon goes belly up a few years later, who is going to keep the factory in orbit so it doesn’t fall on the rest of us?!?

      Any type of orbital manufacturing would need to be extremely well regulated by limiting the size of any factories so they burn up on entry, etc. Allowing the kind of corporate free for all we currently have on earth to exist in space is a recipe for an even bigger disaster than the one currently underway on our pale blue dot.

  6. Norb

    How different is the ideological race to conquer space from the use of religious fervor to direct the actions of the masses? The questionable motives of billionaires promoting all things technology and space exploration leading to domination and control seem the modern secular approach to mind control. Keep the aspirations focused on the stars or distant galaxies, while here on earth, at the present moment, suffering and want abounds. In both secular science, and religious practice, it is the goals pursued by their practitioners that make the difference in outcome. Knowing the goal is what maters.

    Reducing human suffering should be the goal to human social action. It is the only goal that works over time- all the rest are transitory gains enjoyed by the elite- while they can. In reality, it is the ultimate form of cynicism- to take the aspirations and dreams of a population and appropriate that energy for ones own, personal benefit.

    What the world needs now more than ever is honesty- less hubris. Only in that environment can a proper path be chosen.

    An interesting question would be- is the merit of a thing reduced if it was created by slave labor?

    Un-free labor?

  7. Thuto

    It’s not the just space that the plutocrats want to colonize, it’s the web of reality itself along all dimensions, from the celestial to the subatomic. There’s probably as much private money going into quantum computing, the next HUGE thing in computing, as there is going into the new space race. If the hype is to be believed, advances in quantum computing promise to open up whole new vistas of possibilities that make today’s super computers look like child’s play. The danger of ceding “ownership” of these innovations to a class of people who will monopolize and shape the process of determining their social applications through a profit extraction system backed by pernicious intellectual property laws is scary to even contemplate. Nor, in my view, should the pursuit of these paradigm shifting innovations be ceded to nation states as well given some of the immaturity we see in geopolitics today (i don’t want Trump’s space weapons trained on my country).

    A truly international effort tapping the best scientific and technical minds we have as a species should be developed. We’ve seen how, as evidenced by how my own country of South Africa plays an important international role in planetary astronomy, small nations can make meaningful contributions to advancing scientific progress.

  8. fdr-fan

    The alleged tech spinoffs of the moonshot are FAKE.

    Miniaturization was well underway in WW2, and proceeded linearly afterward. Transistors and ICs were invented before the space race, not after. Cordless appliances came before corded appliances. Radios and telephones were powered by batteries before they were plugged into AC. Programmable computers were invented for the 1890 Census and grew consistently afterward.

    We probably could have survived without Tang.

    I’m pretty sure Jeff and Elon have something more personal in mind, not just manufacturing. Jeff is driven and destined to own and be the entire universe. One planet is just a tiny tiny baby step toward the imperative Bezosverse.

    1. vlade

      Tang is not a spinoff (it’s from late 50s).. Neither is miniaturisation, transistors, chips etc. and no-one would claim so. And the census machine wasn’t programmable (any more than the looms that used the first punch cards were), coz tabulating ain’t running a program.

      1. Synoia

        Radios and telephones were powered by batteries before they were plugged into AC.

        Telephones were powered by DC from the Exchange (Central Office). Wireless they were not, and they were never AC.

        Radios only became widespread when AC powered. The very early radios, crystal sets, were radio wave (AC) powered.

    2. Carolinian

      You are mostly right. Here’s what wikipedia has to say about integrated circuits which are the most often cited result of Apollo.

      SSI circuits were crucial to early aerospace projects, and aerospace projects helped inspire development of the technology. Both the Minuteman missile and Apollo program needed lightweight digital computers for their inertial guidance systems. Although the Apollo guidance computer led and motivated integrated-circuit technology,[60] it was the Minuteman missile that forced it into mass-production. The Minuteman missile program and various other United States Navy programs accounted for the total $4 million integrated circuit market in 1962, and by 1968, U.S. Government spending on space and defense still accounted for 37% of the $312 million total production.


      Last week’s PBS marathon show made clear that much of the panic over Sputnik had to do with missiles and atomic warheads rather than planetary science.

    3. Jeremy Grimm

      There is a great difference between invention and development. Many of the NASA spinoffs contain many many patented devices and processes. Do you require that every one of the patents used must be NASA patents before you would call the device a spinoff from NASA?

      The transistor and ICs make good examples for what is required to develop a patent into devices … spinoffs. The transistor was invented at Bell Labs but oodles of transistors didn’t start rolling out of Bell Labs doors. [There was a standing joke inside Bell Labs that they could invent eternal life but their sales and marketing department wouldn’t be able to sell it.] When AT&T was split up the basic patent for the transistor was licensed to the Japanese, at the insistence of the US government if I recall correctly. The patent was regarded as important but not that important. The Japanese had to come up with the small handheld transistor radios to make a large enough market for the transistor to justify the investments required to reduce the basic patent for the transistor to practice. I suspect you might find that many patents are involved in producing transistors like the epoxies and or specialized sealing glass used to make a hermetically sealed ‘can’ to hold the device or the tools and processes for attaching the can’s leads to the transistor wafer.

      Miniaturization was indeed well underway in WW2, and actually well underway several centuries before when the Royal Navy was looking for ways to make a reliable clock for keeping time at sea and before that as watchmakers competed at reducing clocks to smaller and lighter watches. The IC like the transistor may have been invented before the space race but as was the case for the transistor, reducing the basic patent for the IC to practice was hardly a done deal.

      Your reference to WW2 should remind you that miniaturization was promoted by the Department of War which was folded into the Department of Defense [DoD] several years after the end of WW2. The space race was many things including a component of the Cold War propaganda efforts and an offset of DoD concerns about space as a platform for weapons, spying, and communications. [Arthur C. Clarke came up with the idea of satellite communications in 1945 although he would not have been able to patent the idea because the required technology did not yet exist and would not exist until long after the patent would have expired.] Quibbles about whether NASA can claim spinoff ‘X’ as its progeny could rapidly devolve into quibbles about whether NASA were an offshoot ‘from’ DoD or ‘of’ DoD.

      The difference between a patent and the reduction of that patent to practice is well illustrated by the invention of Xerography. Chester Carlson invented and patented xerography in 1938. It took more than twenty years of development before the first commercial copier came to market. And the development of was not a done-deal. In 1944, “[w]hen Carlson was close to giving up on getting his invention from a proof-of-concept to a usable product, happenstance provided a solution.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki Chester_Carlson#The_invention_of_electrophotography].

  9. Kurtismayfield

    I have always thought the goal was to mine the asteroid belt.

    While scientists study asteroids to better understand the formation of the solar system and humanity’s origins on this rock we call home, asteroids could become economically valuable as well. Asteroids often contain important metals such as iron, nickel, and cobalt, as well as small amounts of precious metals such as platinum.

    Once the infrastructure was built to get people up there, getting the minerals back would be seen as extremely cheap in comparison. Kicking it down the gravity well would take very little propulsion. Of course this is a few decades away, but if you have trillions of basically cheap dollars laying around like these squillionaires do, why not give it a shot?

    1. voteforno6

      Kicking it down the gravity well would take very little propulsion.

      What could go wrong with that? A math error could lead to some very grave consequences.

      1. Kurtismayfield

        Oh I agree 100%.. but that is why you colonize Mars.. no one will care if you kick it there, process it, and ship it back to Earth.

        1. False Solace

          Why would we dump it down another gravity well on its way to Earth? Just another energy cost to haul it out again. No breathable atmosphere, no magnetosphere to protect humans from radiation. No water, lots of dust. Who exactly benefits from doing anything on Mars? Aside from the billionaires who dream of setting up new fiefdoms there.

      2. Math is Your Friend

        “What could go wrong with that? A math error could lead to some very grave consequences.”

        You could probably cut the odds of that by one or two orders of magnitude by banishing obsolete units like Imperial and US, and go exclusively to SI units.

        Once something is in the correct orbit, it’s not going to spontaneously wander off. Barring things like atmospheric effects or close passes near a large object., you can be confident of where something is going to be for quite a while.

        Furthermore, it would probably make sense to do the manufacturing near the raw materials and just move the finished products, or semi-finished processed materials.

        The moon program was very expensive, and produced a spectacular but very limited result. putting a dozen people on the moon for a short time, and bringing back just under 400 kg. of rocks.

        From there, it seems to me, things just kept getting more and more expensive and cumbersome.

        The private launch companies seem to be doing a much more efficient job of providing access to space, and will probably continue to do so. More important, they are developing independent systems and methods, unlike the government tendency to go for one big, bloated, expensive, and slow project. The James Webb space telescope is now supposed to launch 14 years late at almost 20 times the original budget. I expect them to miss the one, and over-run the other, again.

        Absent a good war to focus attention on achieving the essentials, I don’t thing a government program can be expected to come anywhere close to the efficiency and achievements of a number of competing independent efforts. Not only that, they can have the imagination and courage to try things no one else is ready to attempt – like landing your boosters on designated spot, or printing new ones with big 3D printers in a tenth the time of conventional construction, as another firm is attempting.

        Given the importance of good space access, it would be criminal to let the governments dominate these efforts, to the detriment of us all. Many of the answers to problems about resources, pollution, energy, and long term survival lie beyond the atmosphere.

        With respect to the space elevator, there are a number of possible approaches. The good news is that single crystal graphene measuring 500mm by 50mm has been produced. This material is about 2.6 times the strenght needed for a geosynchronous space elevator.


        While the tether must be roughly eight orders of magnitude longer, this sample is already about half way there – the atoms are about 1.42×10^-10 metres apart. The fundamental problem of growing the crystal is clearly well in hand, now the manufacturing process has to be scaled up.

        Graphene also promises to be useful for desalination, extracting or separating materials, power and data transmission as well as being insanely strong in tension, so a lot of people are working on it.

        In the mean time, a lower stress version of a space elevator is also possible, the asynchronous skyhook. While this is not as convenient as the elevator, it might serve to help lift materials to bootstrap the full on synchronous elevator.

        This all gets very technical quickly, and there are hundreds and hundreds of pages of math, analysis, designs, etc. out there… I can’t provide a complete explanation of the possibilities and tradeoffs, and a lot of you would be bored with those details… but it looks as possible as the moon landings did shortly after the first satellites.

        And there was an interesting proposal for some ot the methods leading to a colony on Mars, coming out of NASA, Harvard, and the University of Edinburgh:


        A lot of things are going to have to come together, and some things won’t work as well as they must, but with enough different groups working on alternate solutions, we’ll probably find enough pieces and a few spares.

        I am not sure that Hawking was right to say we need to colonize another planet within a century, but the ultimate necessity is clear.

        1. Jeotsu

          Also, put your captured resource asteroid in lunar orbit, not earth orbit. Safer approach vector, and very little delta-V required to kick your packages back down to earth.

          I remember reading some 20 years ago a prediction that it would cost ~1 trillion dollars to get a multi-megaton resource asteroid moved into earth-orbital-proximity (and thus would never happened).

          After spending the last 18 years throwing multiple-trillions down middle-eastern and central asian warfare black-holes, I wonder how different the world could be.

          Solar power satellites could (in theory) get ride of the ittermitency problems of terrestrial “renewable energy”. And those are feasible if you capture the right asteroid with a good mix of elements from which to forge and craft.

          1. Synoia

            Those Solar Power satellites would make good weapons…..

            Giving new meaning to Crispy Critters!

    2. Samuel Conner

      Not sure that it’s a simple matter to return in situ mined materials. One can put containers of them into an elliptical orbit that crosses Earth’s, but then one has to “catch” them into Earth orbit. If that’s done by a recovery vehicle, the energy cost would not be trivial since the vehicle and its fuel would need to be accelerated into a matching orbit, and then changed to Earth orbit.

      If one is willing to take multi-years to make the delivery, perhaps solar sails could help reduce the propulsion cost.

      1. False Solace

        Plus, all those containers you lob at Earth will make excellent weapons. All you have to do is alter the targeting slightly.

  10. Louis Fyne

    1. Bezos is a self-professed sci-fi nerd (me too). I’d di the exact same thing if I could use my wealth/influence to attract investor cash.

    2. It’s a symptom, not a cause…..the government space efforts are tilted to military-security uses (see newest space plane), with crumbs for basic research. Bezos et al are rushing to fill that vacuum.

    1. Carolinian

      The original space race was all about “beating the Russians.” Now it’s all about beating each other? Plus they see themselves as futurists and “the future” becomes their moral excuse for everything. Can’t hold back progress doncha know.

      So for Bezos at least space is a kind of virtue signaling to distract from all his other predations.

  11. Michael Fiorillo

    I’m not a science fiction fan, have never had much interest in space exploration, and don’t have a science background, but the energy usage/thermodynamics of large-scale space development seem deluded to me.

    Also, you’d have a hard time convincing me that these characters have any intention other than partying with pretty girls in space, and leaving the rest of us behind to cannibalize each other on the denuded planet they’ve done more than most to help create.

  12. oaf

    its ultimately all about establishing control/ownership/rentability of resources. Driving a stake through the heart of competition. *Benefits to Humankind* is just a cover.

  13. The Rev Kev

    To get anything into orbit, you have to overcome the “gravity well”. That means that you need big boosters to lift a dead weight off the surface of the planet to get it high enough and in the right direction to achieve orbit. Apparently it cost about $10,000 to put a pound of payload into orbit and is a bottleneck for getting into space. But – and this is key – if you control the means for getting into orbit then you have a death-grip on anything to do with space. You decide who gets up there and at what cost. The Pentagon has already stated that they want to “dominate” space though I do not know if that will mean orbiting nukes one day. But they will be a steady customer for going into space which will provide a regular cash-flow. Anything to do with science, mining, manufacturing in micro-gravity will all have to use Jeff and Elon’s transport systems. And they will pay for the privilege. America thrived in the 20th century because they provided people with electricity, water, road systems, school systems but our tech overlords will never do anything like that for space. Everybody want to go for Starfleet but Jeff & Ellons vision is more like the Weyland-Yutani Corporation from “Aliens”. A lot of people think of them as a sort of Tony Stark but in so many ways they remind me more of Delos David “D. D.” Harriman from “The Man Who Sold the Moon”-


  14. Wukchumni

    The super rich are pretty much all about exclusivity, and what better place to show their tendencies than outer space?

    The further out-the better, btw.

  15. Stephen Gardner

    Why do people take Bezos and Musk so seriously? Because they are billionaires and therefore the smartest guys ever? They both have numerous failures that seem to drop down the memory hole. And these things are very easy compared to manufacturing in space. Think Musk’s cave submarine and Amazon restaurants. Space is just a rich boy’s vanity project. They have been drinking their own koolaid for a long time. We don’t have to drink it though. Musk dropped out of a PhD program before it even started and we are supposed to take him seriously about a project to do manufacturing in space? He hops from one thing to another before anything gets completed. Look up dilettante in the dictionary. There’s his picture illustrating the concept.

    Why is manufacturing in space anymore useful than manufacturing in Antarctica or at the bottom of the ocean? Historically manufacturing has been done close to either a source of necessary production factors or close to a market. Make stuff in space? Are you serious Jeff and Elan? So much ignorance of physics, economics and history.

  16. Watt4Bob

    I’d like to take a stab at actually answering the question;

    My guess is that if you are a billionaire, you require ever bigger projects to produce ‘losses’ which can be used to attenuate your tax bills.

    The tech boom provided a near infinite ability to ‘loose’ money pursuing lofty goals, but also in the pursuit of lower tax bills

    And the scams involving space do that even better.

    Remember the movie The Producers, the plot is based on the opportunity to capitalize on a guaranteed failure of a Broadway musical, or for that matter, Uber which is never going to make a profit for investors, but founders have become very rich.

    Billionaire’s can find ways that failure pays, as opposed to us at the bottom whose failures cost us in real terms. Just look at our president, he has made billions and doesn’t pay taxes, I’m guessing because he looses a lot of money?

    Consider the ‘Star-Wars’ project, in development ever since Reagan dreamed it up, it’s been making billions for a small group of people even though it’s never going to protect anybody from anything.

    As we say around here, “Grifters gotta grift.”

    1. juliania

      I agree, What4Bob. My comment expressing same got wafted, dare I say, into space. Maybe it will reappear. I see space as a money maker for those that have, and a distraction for the war profiteers. As it was during the war in Vietnam.

  17. Matthew G. Saroff

    Space will be privatized, Wall Street will f%$# everything up, and people will die, not just in space, but when an orbital factory de-orbits and crashes into Peoria because someone cut costs on attitude adjustement.

  18. Synoia

    where billionaires like Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, among others…

    Two questions:
    1. Where’s the beef (money, roi, etc)?
    2. It is “Boys and their toys,” and the toys get larger with age?

    One could observe that none of these Billionaires want to tackle earth bound problems, for example Musk is from South Africa, and I see not focus on anything for any part of Africa from Musk.

  19. sleepy

    “To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.”

    ― Cecil Rhodes, The Last Will and Testament of Cecil John Rhodes

  20. shinola

    It’s been barely hinted at in a couple of the above comments, but I can think of a purpose for practicing putting things into orbit. Weaponization and, perhaps, global blackmail.

    Nah, those billionaire control freaks would never do anything like that. I’ve probably just seen too many James Bond movies.

    1. TomT

      I can’t help thinking that the billionaires’ fascination with space travel as more to do with their apparent belief that they will be able to escape the climate change-hellscape that they are helping to create for the rest of us. Maybe instead of targeting Area 51, crowds of people should overrun those launch pads.

  21. Don Utter

    The billionaires are “off shore.” They are no tied to earth.

    So why not, head off to space?

    French Polymath Bruno Latour

    Architects and designers are facing a new problem when they aspire to build for a
    habitable planet.1 They have to answer a new question, because what used to be a
    poor joke—“My dear fellow, you seem to live on another planet”—has become
    literal—“Yes, we do intend to live on a different planet!” In the “old days” when
    political scientists talked about geopolitics, they meant different nations with
    opposing interests waging wars on the same material and geographic stage. Today,
    geopolitics is also concerned with wars over the definition of the stage itself. A
    conflict will be called, from now on, “of planetary relevance” not because it has the
    planet for a stage, but because it is about which planet you are claiming to inhabit and

    I am starting from the premise that what I have called the New Climatic Regime
    organizes all political affiliations.2 The climate question is not one aspect of politics
    among others, but that which defines the political order from beginning to end,
    forcing all of us to redefine the older questions of social justice along with those of
    identity, subsistence, and attachment to place. In recent years we have shifted from
    questions of ecology—nature remaining outside the social order—to questions of
    existential subsistence on threatened territories. Nature is no longer outside us but
    under our feet, and it shakes the ground. Just as at the beginning of modern political
    philosophy, in the time of Thomas Hobbes, we are dealing with humans not unified
    but divided by nature to the point that they are engaged in civil wars as violent as the
    religious wars of the past, and forced to look for peace by altogether reinventing the
    social order. 3 Climate mutation means that the question of the land on which we all
    stand has come back into focus, hence the general political disorientation, especially
    for the left, which did not expect to have to talk again of “people” and “soil”—
    questions mostly abandoned to the right.

    “We don’t seem to live on the same planet”
    —A Fictional Planetarium

  22. RBHoughton

    I guess a major attraction of space for private biz is that government has done all the heavy lifting in terms of identifying the right fuels and oxidisers, matching the chemicals to the motor and discovering the best alloys for use.

    That has been a half-century long process of trial and error in which our knowledge of chemistry has been immensely expanded.

    The people paid for that but now private money can move in with the great investment already made and expect big profits

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