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Opinions | Congress can’t agree on big things. Let billionaires handle space.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/24/2021 Katherine Mangu-Ward
a group of people sitting on a bench: Jeff Bezos shakes hands with Wally Funk, who became the oldest person to travel to space, with crewmates Oliver Daemen and Mark Bezos at a post-launch news conference on July 20 in Van Horn, Tex., after they flew on Blue Origin's inaugural flight to the edge of space. © Joe Skipper/Reuters Jeff Bezos shakes hands with Wally Funk, who became the oldest person to travel to space, with crewmates Oliver Daemen and Mark Bezos at a post-launch news conference on July 20 in Van Horn, Tex., after they flew on Blue Origin's inaugural flight to the edge of space.

Politicians love it when Americans go to space. They give speeches about technological breakthroughs, new frontiers and the limitless power of the human imagination — unless the Americans in space are billionaires who flew on their own rockets; then they mean tweet.

Blue Origin owner Jeff Bezos (also owner of The Washington Post) traveled to the edge of space on Tuesday; Virgin’s Richard Branson took flight earlier this month; and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) took to Twitter, unimpressed:

Before both flights, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) — a member of the NASA Caucustweeted: “Should billionaires play out their space travel fantasies, or should we invest in schooling, provide healthcare, and create prosperity for everyone? We need a wealth tax.”

This week, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), said he’ll introduce legislation that would tax wealthy passengers on space flights that don’t have scientific goals, in order to “support the public good.”

They’re not wrong that there are plenty of problems here on Earth that need attention, and resources. But what’s wrong with letting the billionaires take a turn at tackling outer space?

You or I might not choose to spend money the way Bezos, Branson or SpaceX’s Elon Musk have. But it’s one giant leap from there to suggesting that Congress is better at spending money, or that a private space race, which right now looks like a game of one-upmanship between famous rich guys, can’t ultimately redound to the public good.

In a country where there is ever-increasing disagreement about policy priorities (on Wednesday, a Senate procedural vote to advance a putatively bipartisan infrastructure package failed), the proper role of the state, and the trustworthiness of our elected officials, it’s time to take seriously the idea that government may not always be primed to take on some of our biggest problems.

Video: Nelson on billionaires space race: ‘They’re spending their own money… doing incredible things’ (The Washington Post)

Nelson on billionaires space race: ‘They’re spending their own money… doing incredible things’

Sure, if we instituted a wealth tax or started “abolishing billionaires,” as some on Capitol Hill seem eager to do, legislators might better build consensus around spending some of that money to strengthen a safety net that helps people in crisis, while also prudently acting in the short term to stave off long-term existential threats. Might. But they’re definitely going to spend a pile of money on forever wars, handing out corporate welfare and incarcerating minor offenders as part of the misbegotten war on drugs. They’d fund a space program, too.

George Takei: The ‘Star Trek’ vision was hopeful. Trump’s is the mirror image.

Bezos, Branson and Musk have all made it clear why they’re willing to invest in space: They think having a new frontier (and a possible escape hatch) are worth a lot to mankind in the long run. Clearly, they all want to add to their billions — that’s just what they do. But as Bezos explained to CNBC, there’s a broader vision: “What we’re really trying to do is build reusable space vehicles. It’s the only way to build a road to space, and we need to build a road to space so that our children can build the future.” Americans appear to agree: 72 percent of them telling Pew Research that it’s essential for the United States to be world leader in space exploration. But on this challenge, and so many others, too many of the politicians — who well know that they have no hope of getting on the same page with their counterparts — still seem to prefer scoring points on Twitter.

If we can’t have consensus, though, maybe it’s time we tried competition.

There’s an old saying among space nerds: Space is a place, not a program. The Apollo Program was an inspiring feat, something Americans deserve to brag about until the heat death of the universe. Yes, the Soviets beat us to orbit, but we got men to the moon and back with a repurposed pen and 32,768 bits of RAM.

Over time, the U.S. space agency relinquished its early dominance of manned spaceflight, pivoting to expensive, cumbersome shuttles that were akin to space buses, loaded with science projects involving roundworms. The program was shelved a decade ago.

This left a bunch of folks who came of age during the Apollo era hanging. A few became billionaires who figured if they were going to realize the spacefaring dreams of their youth, they’d have to do it themselves — and they might as well sell tickets while they were at it.

They began to realize those ambitions and to dramatically bring down the cost of launch. According to one 2018 analysis: “NASA’s space shuttle had a cost of about $1.5 billion to launch 27,500 kg to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), $54,500/kg. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 now advertises a cost of $62 million to launch 22,800 kg to LEO, $2,720/kg. Commercial launch has reduced the cost to LEO by a factor of 20.”

What if philanthropy isn’t the best way for rich people to help others?

It’s easy to see how a roughly 10-minute round-trip space flight that takes passengers from Earth to Earth strikes many as a vanity project. There’s no guarantee that every luxury good will eventually become a commodity. And competition ought to be a fair fight: No regulators playing favorites, no subsidies — right now, the private space sector is too reliant on government infrastructure and government contracts. But billionaires are helping turn a pricey, ineffective government initiative into a competitive industry, and they’re doing it following an ego-powered, grandiose template that has worked before.

The eccentric interests of prominent, sometimes wealthy weirdos trying to outdo each other brought us electric light, the automobile, commercial airlines, personal mobile phones and more. One day: passenger berths for regular schmos.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether Branson launched before Bezos, or if Musk thinks it would be cool to be “born on Earth and die on Mars. Hopefully not at the point of impact,” as he’s fond of saying. What matters is what the rest of us will do when we can buy tickets to use their tech, something Congress isn’t putting on offer. Billionaire antics aren’t the point. While politicians are pointing fingers, they’re getting us one small step closer to where so many of us already agree we’d like to go.


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