- 03 Aug 21
The race to colonise Mars is well and truly underway as interplanetary living looms large. But does earth's inhabitants really want three billionaires in charge of such a daunting mission?
It was a hot day in West Texas last week when Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos blasted into suborbital space. The four travellers inside the New Shepard rocket spent only 10 minutes on their journey – a remarkably short time for a pivotal moment in human history.
Welcome to the Space Race 2.0. It’s the space race, but with billionaires instead of communism.
It’s been raging since the year 2000 when Bezos set up Blue Origin - the space exploration company that would eventually go on to build the New Shepard - in the hopes of setting up a space tourism industry and allowing humanity to colonise space – escaping our inevitable demise here on planet Earth either by our own hand (climate change) or external factors (asteroid impact). His most recent vision is moving all “heavy and polluting industry” to Mars to save ourselves from climate-related doom.
Telsa CEO Elon Musk entered the race next, setting up SpaceX in 2002 for the same reasons. The company designs, manufactures, and launches advanced rockets and spacecrafts with the goal of eventually setting up a self-sustaining city on Mars. According to Musk, the city will have an “outdoorsy” feel – an interesting ambition for a planet with an unbreathable atmosphere.
Virgin Media tycoon Sir Richard Branson is the latest competitor, setting up Virgin Galactic in 2004. He wants to colonise Mars too, but he really wants to set up a suborbital space tourism industry, where punters can fork out a cool $250,000 for a trip to the edge of the final frontier.
The idea of colonising space – setting up human civilisations on Mars or the moon, for example – is not a new one. It’s a longstanding branch of scientific thought, academic study, and ethical exploration that countless scientists, lawmakers, and thinkers have contributed to.
The thing is, now that three billionaires with a combined estimated worth of $379,200,000,000 (379 billion 200 million) are channelling their unimaginable resources into making it happen, it’s starting to become a reality. Some are thrilled by this step towards the final frontier, others are appalled. In some ways, it’s easy to see why.
All around the world, people are dying of poverty, starvation, lack of access to adequate medical care, war, climate change – the list goes on. All the while, three of the richest men on Earth (Bezos would have to send all 3.82 million people in the US a cheque for $597 before he ran out of money) are racing to set up life on Mars when they could be investing in public and social infrastructures and climate action.
As twitter user @John_Fae_Ecosse said, “If we wanted to boldly send billionaires where no billionaires have been before, we could just have sent them to the tax office.”
If we wanted to boldly send billionaires where no billionaires have been before, we could just have sent them to the tax office.
— John the Scot (@John_Fae_Ecosse) July 28, 2021
“We’re never going to solve all of our problems on the Earth at any point in human history. At some point, you have to decide that we’re going to explore space and solve problems on the Earth at the same time,” says Charles Cockell, professor of astrobiology in Edinburgh University and co-founder of the UK Centre for Astrobiology.
“One thing is absolutely assured,” Professor Cockell continues. “If you sit on a planet for long enough, you will go extinct.”
Professor Cockell has dedicated much of his career to studying how and if we should colonise space. He feels that the Space Race 2.0 is ultimately a positive thing – speeding up the process of colonisation and allowing private companies to foot some of the bill.
“We know that this planet is subjected to things that change the Earth’s systems so much it can cause mass extinction, and one of those things is asteroid impact,” he explains.
We’ve learned through studying fossil records that asteroid impacts happen, on average, every 100 million years. The problem is, we don’t know when an asteroid could hit us. In theory, three could crash into us next week, followed by 200 million years of asteroid-related peace and quiet.
“If you know that something like asteroid impact can occur, but you don’t know when, and you have a space programme that allows you to spread out throughout the solar system – why would you play Russian roulette like the dinosaurs and take a chance on the possibility of mass extinction?” Professor Cockell asks.
There’s also the vague possibility that we’re going to destroy the Earth via greenhouse gas emissions. Professor Cockell is clear that this is not a reason to colonise Mars, “it’s very perverse to take the view that because we’re destroying the Earth, we should just go somewhere else,” he says.
“If we’re destroying the Earth that badly, we should stop destroying the Earth. That’s why I very strongly have this vision of the Earth cared for by a space-faring civilisation.”
Dr Cara Augustenborg, an environmental scientist and climate commentator, agrees with him.
“This idea [that Mars is a lifeboat for humanity] is directly interfering with Plan A, which is to try and stop the climate crisis in the first place.”
“We just don’t have much time left,” she continues. “We have until 2050 to be at net zero carbon emissions – that’s only 30 years away, and the world will have to spend $50 trillion to make that transition to a low-carbon society.”
If greenhouse gas emissions don’t fall, more than three billion people will be living in “near unliveable” temperatures by 2070. Already, communities across the globe have been displaced by flooding, droughts, landslides, and forest fires – all of which can be linked back to climate change.
“It would be different if we were looking at electric rockets going into space, but that’s not what’s happening here – it’s very damaging to the planet, and all this money that could be spent on climate change is now going to be spent on space exploration,” Dr Augustenborg says.
Space exploration and environmentalism aren’t inherently at odds. We measure the height of the Earth’s oceans using satellites and learn about the effects of greenhouse gasses on a planet’s atmosphere by studying Venus.
The problem is, we’ve never had industrialised space tourism and travel like this before.
It would be unfair to suggest that these billionaires haven’t at least attempted to make their celestial pursuits eco-friendly. In fact, Bezos and Musk have invested heavily in climate action, and Branson has called for a clean energy dividend to be imposed on the fossil fuel companies use and the carbon emissions they cause.
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket is reusable – landing in the ocean when it drops back down to Earth, only to be collected for another use. Blue Origin’s New Shepard is the same, and their New Glenn rocket is partly reusable. The New Shepard also runs on a liquid hydrogen-fuelled engine, and SpaceX’s engines run on liquid kerosene and liquid oxygen, making them at least theoretically more environmentally friendly with fewer carbon emissions.
“Bezos makes a great thing about the hydrogen he uses to power his rockets, but there’s lots of questions there,” says Tim Jackson, an ecological economist and professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey.
“Where does the hydrogen come from? Is it green hydrogen? If you’re burning it at that rate, you’re not using it in batteries or in fuel for industry, it’s a concentration of environmental impact for the enjoyment of very few people. That can’t really be the kind of direction we want to see in new sector development,” he explains.
Branson has promised a “green spaceship” but has yet to deliver, and the CO2 emissions from an industry like space tourism are not to be scoffed at.
“These flights are a hundred times more damaging to the climate than a first-class transatlantic flight,” explains Dr Augustenborg.
“What’s even more worrying is this idea of black carbon, which is this black soot that gets emitted from rockets and goes into the stratosphere,” she says. “We know very little about it because we don’t have a lot of rockets going into the stratosphere, so it’s not something scientists have studied extensively. But they are saying that it is 100,000 to one million times more impactful on the climate than carbon dioxide.”
The climate implications of an industry like space tourism are unimaginable as it stands – but that’s not the only ethical quandary here.
When Bezos returned from suborbital space, he thanked “every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all this” in what was potentially the most tone-deaf statement of all time.
Amazon employees are infamously underpaid and overworked, with workers reporting that they are forced to skip bathroom breaks or pee in bottles because the fulfilment demands are so high. People like Bezos can easily afford to pay their employees more, due to their abundance of expendable income which is helped along by the fact that billionaires pay little to no tax.
Are these the people we see as best suited to pioneering humanity’s interplanetary society?
“It’s terrifying,” says Professor Jackson. “It’s about how it’s done as much as anything else. As an expansion of a reckless and deeply unequal capitalism, it’s highly dangerous. It’s creating whole power-structures that we have no idea of the long-term implications of,” he says.
As well as being linked to racism, patriarchy, and the climate crisis, capitalism relies on the means of production being privately owned. Obviously, this isn’t always the case. For example, in Ireland, essential products and services like water and health care are owned by the state and can be publicly accessed for free.
However, it’s hard to ignore the idea that men like Bezos, Musk, and Branson typify a kind of capitalism-on-steroids, or hyper-capitalism, that would drive the privatisation of essential public services in space.
On Mars, a planet with an unbreathable atmosphere, we will rely on oxygen that is manufactured and pumped into our living spaces to survive. If the means of producing that oxygen are privately owned, that private corporation quite literally holds the population’s life in their hands, begging the question, what happens if you can’t afford your next oxygen bill?
“If you build a tyranny on Mars, no one will want to live there,” Professor Cockell explains. “There’s a strong incentive for these people to build settlements, if they ever get to that stage, where people want to go and work and live.”
He feels that an entirely anti-capitalist approach to our new colony is too ideological.
“There’s this idea that once you leave the Earth, human beings are going to become utopian and benevolent,” he begins.
“That we won’t have any problems, and we’re all going to live on Mars in some communist utopia where we’re all nice to each other and we all share everything we own. This is just not the case. People are going to be human beings, and when they go to other planets they will do capitalism, barter, sell things, and try to expand their own self-interest.
“That’s not a reason not to do it. It is a reason to sit down and think ‘how can we channel human behaviour beyond the Earth into excellent societies and make all this activity as positive as possible.’”
The experts generally agree that the fix here is to have governments and people who have dedicated their time and energy to considering these problems become involved in space race projects
“It’s very difficult to see what’s going to rein it in, if not that [government regulation and intervention]. At the moment, we’re doing the opposite, we’re throwing massive subsidies at these things through space programmes, and assuming that will be in the public interest,” says Professor Jackson.
One thing is clear, the exploration of space cannot be done at the expense of the Earth and its inhabitants.
“I think anyone who wants to set up a settlement on the moon, or Mars, or anywhere else should want to have those conversations. Elon Musk is gonna risk people and huge resources to get to Mars, I would be very surprised if he didn’t want to have a lot of discussions with people about how to do that,” says Professor Cockell.
In the end, it seems inevitable that humanity will colonise space. If done properly, it could see the advancement of the human race in ways we can’t even imagine yet. If done by the unethical means typical to that of billionaires, it could spell ultimate disaster. It’s a matter of understanding who holds the mantle.
As Kim Stanley Robinson once sagely wrote, “money equals power; power makes the law; and law makes government.”