I was asked to contribute to New York magazine’s Future issue in November of last year. My piece was cut for space and I keep meaning to post the full text somewhere. This newsletter seems about as good a place as any. Here is it:
Last spring, Jeff Bezos delivered a public presentation about his plans for Blue Origin, the aerospace company he owns and funds with liquidated Amazon stock. Standing in what looked like a black box theater and pacing with the easy confidence and careful steps of a monologist; this modest staging only enhanced the wild ideas and trippy illustrations he had to share. A “trillion humans” could live in space, he said, some in artificial gravity where human flight won’t be out of the question. There, the architecture will be fanciful and unexpected, because shelter from harsh climate won’t be a necessary component to design—these spaces will be perpetual “shirt-sleeve environments” that feel like Maui “on its best day.” When he finally unveiled a prototype for a lunar lander called Blue Moon, the space cargo carrier seemed local, almost provincial, in contrast with the faux-Hawaii-in-the-stars “our grandchildren’s grandchildren” are set to inherit. Whatever comes out of that mockup, this presentation signaled that Bezos is laser-focused on development in final frontier. He’s a NASA of his own and one unaccountable to constituents.
Bezos is only one of the key players in the billionaire space race. There’s Elon Musk, eager to land on Mars in some capacity through his private aerospace company SpaceX. Richard Branson is already selling tickets to Virgin Galactic, which says it will shuttle up spectators on the SpaceShipTwo in 2020. We’ll have to wait and see. There has never been a Trump Galactic or Space Trump, but even President Trump has wheedled his way into the mix by proposing a “Space Force” unit under the Department of Defense. Why these men have taken up this outrageously expensive obsession is almost too on the nose: the Kármán line cannot curtail their egos; they chose to flex their wealth and power in an industry with action that unfolds over every earth-bound human’s head.
Blue Moon is scheduled to launch in 2024. If this mission is successful; its cost to each of us could be profound. What’s it going to feel like for the most of us, the non-billionaires, to look up at the moon at night and know that one of Bezos’ toys is strutting around on the surface? The answer might be something similar to what Gil Scott-Heron expressed in his response to Apollo 11, “Whitey on the Moon.” But the mission doesn’t have to be successful to put a damper on our personal enjoyment of the moon and stars each night. Even the failed projects of space billionaires demonstrate the vast inequality that can exist between one human and another. These individuals don’t have to be practical, their dreams aren’t tethered to mere terrestrial concerns like healthcare or student loans; they can throw money away on rockets that blow up and spin out because they can. Meanwhile, the common pleasure of the night sky might come to feel less like an opening to the infinite than a membrane of modern robber baron excess—something we are trapped under, rather than living within; less ours to admire, then theirs to control.