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Billionaire Space Race: For Humanity or Hubris?

In the 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first satellite to orbit earth. In turn, the space race began, as the United States and USSR strived for leverage in the Cold War with galactic technological achievements. Rather than between countries, the space race of the 21st century is between men of immense wealth. Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk have invested in space travel since the beginning of the century in order to establish tourism for those who can afford the ticket. It sounds like something from a movie, but it is a present reality that we now must accept.

The dream of space tourism was put into action over twenty years ago. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin was created in 2000, Elon Musk’s SpaceX in 2002, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic in 2004. On July 20th 2021, Branson became the first of these billionaires to reach the edge of space with a ship his company created. Nine days later, on the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing for ceremonial nostalgia, Bezos travelled a bit farther into space with a crew of four on an automated ship. Musk prepares for SpaceX's premier flight to take place in September. This is just the beginning.

Although the first flights have just taken place, there are immediate plans for the space tourism industry. A ticket for the first commercial Virgin Galactic flight starts at $250,000, and according to Branson, the company has over 600 reservations for the ride. Research and Markets state the compound annual growth rate of space tourism 17.15% between 2021 and 2031. By the latter date, the market is prospected to reach $2.58 billion. The industry is in its infancy, as one day it will engage the earthly economy through the creation of jobs and the novelty of visiting space.

The excitement of space one akin to childlike fascination. It’s no wonder many people are already willing pay the affluent price for the chance to visit the solar system. Yet, it’s important to weigh the downsides of this new industry, so that regulations can be created and protect another environment and our home.

The commercial rockets created to send hundreds of tourists into space require propellants to travel. Virgin Galactic rockets use a combination of solid carbon-based fuel, hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB), and a liquid oxidant. Blue Origin uses liquid hydrogen and oxygen. SpaceX is to use kerosene and liquid oxygen. Per passenger, the crafts emit 200-300 tons of carbon. The gases remain two to three years in the stratosphere and mesosphere, which is not only due caution for climate change, but also a potentiality of depleting the stratospheric ozone layer. The minimization of this layer would lead to more UV radiation reaching Earth and expediting the Greenhouse Effect. When we should be cutting down on carbon emissions, the billionaire space race plans increase it for a future that control and benefit from.

During his trip, Bezos was able to take in Earth in its entirety and had some words to say when he touched back down to the surface. "When you look at the planet, there are no borders," He remarked to NBC. "It’s one planet, and we share it and it's fragile." Although trying my best to stay objective, I couldn't help but laugh at the hypocrisy of his realization. Forbes recently named Bezos the richest man alive after his net worth skyrocketed 75 billion USD during 2020. After profiting from a global pandemic with a shipment company that creates an immense amount of pollution, and notoriously bad working conditions, it took a multibillion-dollar ride in space to open his eyes to the fragility of our Earth.

Both Bezos and Musk have had long term dreams of space colonies. They see stations rotating above Earth, millions living on Mars, the human race outwitting our dying planet to protect our species. I've read too many 20th century sci-fi books to not be excited by a life in space. However, we are not ready for that. Creating space colonies, as absurd as it sounds, is a band aid to a much deeper, less exciting problem. We need to learn how to live on Earth, how to respect this planet which gave us life, rather than abandon it for our own wellbeing.

The billionaire space race is not unlike that from the Cold War. Every contestant has something to prove and wants to be the first to prove it. Space tourism is not about expanding humanity but expanding the wallets and names of a few men. It is an imaginative way to worsen the conditions of this planet while strengthening the causes of its death such as greed.

When Neil Armstrong uttered, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" in 1969, there was no way to imagine where that leap would take space travel in 2021. And yet, this industry is still in its infancy, so we all we can do is watch as history unfolds itself before us.

Written by Alexia Tiches


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