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Dawn of the Space Lords

Billionaires have big plans to expand their dominion

They called it a “Sputnik moment.” In October, the Financial Times reported that over the summer of 2021, the Chinese government tested a new missile. It was reported to have been fired from a so-called hypersonic glide vehicle that circled the planet at speeds exceeding Mach 5 before landing within twenty-five miles of its target. The strategic implications were overblown, but the Sputnik comparison was apt in that a rival power—a communist one no less—had outperformed the United States in space.

U.S. military and intelligence officials feared the test vehicle could allow China to launch an unstoppable nuclear first strike. Chinese officials claimed it was not a weapon, but a peaceful spacecraft—part of a flourishing national program that recently launched a probe to Mars, landed the first robotic spacecraft on the dark side of the Moon, and commenced orbital assembly of a space station, just as the funded lifetime of the U.S.-backed International Space Station (ISS) nears an end.

Meanwhile, American capitalism carved its own venturesome path into the final frontier. In November, a capsule made by SpaceX, the company owned by PayPal lottery winner and Tesla head Elon Musk, returned four astronauts to Earth from the ISS. But, as Tesla owners have come to expect, there was a problem with Musk’s design. A toilet seal broke, spilling pools of urine below the floorboards. Fortunately, the structure wasn’t compromised, but the snafu forced the crew to resort to diapers for twenty hours during descent, which the pilot called “suboptimal.”

Call that a “SpaceX moment.” What does it say about the U.S. space program—once the envy of the world—that while its generals were figuratively pissing themselves over a Chinese rocket, its astronauts were literally pissing themselves because a profit-hungry contractor screwed up?

Red Scares, Blue Origins, and Little Green Men

Yes indeed, there’s a new space race on. The stakes are the expansion of military, economic, and political dominion. As in the Cold War, this contest is ideological as well as technological. China has replaced Russia as America’s cosmic bogeyman. But nations are no longer the only leading actors. A new class of spacefaring oligarchs, most notably Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, whose space company is called Blue Origin, have been granted a kind of royal charter by Congress, the White House, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The personality cults around these billionaire space lords make the nationalistic spectacle of the Apollo program seem stodgy. More significantly, an endeavor once led by rule-bound bureaucrats now champions the dubious values of Silicon Valley: cost-cutting, disruption, disdain for regulations, and boundless monopoly.

It’s too soon to say whether decades of unchecked privatization have blunted the U.S. edge in space, or whether corporations, given generous subsidy, can surpass the achievements of the 1960s.

It’s too soon to say whether decades of unchecked privatization have blunted the U.S. edge in space, or whether corporations, given generous subsidy, can surpass the achievements of the 1960s. But it is clear the objectives of the civilian space program have already shifted. The pursuit of profit has subsumed the pursuit of knowledge. It is no accident that the two men who perennially compete for the title of world’s wealthiest have chosen to funnel their fortunes into rockets, satellites, space stations, and plans for off-world colonies. That’s how they expect to keep winning at capitalism and, eventually, to appropriate the powers of government. Many scientists still advocate for “peaceful cooperation” among nations to better understand our universe, a program of the kind that President John F. Kennedy pitched in his final address to the United Nations in 1963. But it’s billionaires who are driving policy, and what they offer is a gloomier future of all-powerful corporations that cement their dominance on Earth by laying claim to the heavens. Such is the mission we’re asked to cheer, and to finance.

Most of the hype around SpaceX and Blue Origin, along with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, has served these companies’ principal marketing strategy: space tourism. Having “The Right Stuff” now means having the cash to buy a ticket ($250,000 at the low end, running up to tens of millions of dollars for a first-class experience). Because there’s very little to actually do during a few minutes of weightlessness in the upper atmosphere, these companies are really selling bragging rights, as well as a chance at a rare experience called the overview effect, an epiphany said to affect those who behold Mother Gaia from above. But there are no guarantees! When Star Trek icon William Shatner returned from a jaunt in a Blue Origin rocket in October, he was “overwhelmed” with emotion. As Shatner struggled to articulate the vision of life and death he’d experienced while beholding Earth against the void, Bezos, relishing his PR victory, cut in calling for champagne. So much for higher realities.

If it was only about charter flights for wealthy seekers, all this fuss might seem frivolous. And in many ways it is. But the space lords see tourism as a stepping stone. Many business and political leaders have embraced the notion that private space exploration—or rather, exploitation—will transform the economy much as globalization did, promoting corporate consolidation and even higher levels of inequality. And that’s supposed to be a good thing. “I predict the first trillionaire will be made in space,” Texas senator Ted Cruz, who was weaned on the science fiction of Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, told Politico in 2018. During his tenure leading the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, Cruz authored the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, signed by Barack Obama, which permits Americans to keep what they find in space. Cruz also affirmed that the most critical American task in space was sending humans to Mars, a goal Donald Trump endorsed and Joe Biden has not reversed.

Musk thinks he can get there before Russia, China, or NASA. The billionaire’s plan entails an unprecedented allocation of resources toward an unconscionably risky enterprise with no discernible upside for the typical earthling. Musk pictures a fleet of one-thousand-plus spaceships lurking in orbit until the arrival of a favorable launch window, whereupon “the Mars colonial fleet would depart en masse,” ferrying eighty thousand people per year on a brisk eighty-day journey to the Red Planet. After a period of forty to one hundred years, he figures a million humans would live and work there (for Musk presumably, doing whatever he wants).

Bezos has other ideas. He thinks moving people to Mars is neither feasible nor desirable. “I say, ‘Do me a favor, go live on the top of Mount Everest for a year first, and see if you like it—because it’s a garden paradise compared to Mars,’” he once told an interviewer. Bezos maintains that, being closer to Earth, space stations would prove more economical. He wants to build orbital colonies “miles on end,” each holding a million people or more, and an expansive Moon base to supply raw materials.

Musk calls Bezos the unrealistic one, saying his space colonies “would be like trying to build the U.S.A. in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean!” Both are right about the other’s faults. Sniping aside, their fundamental goal is the same: to dictate the course of evolution. Musk hopes “to make life multi-planetary” in order to “preserve the light of consciousness” should Earth go bust. Bezos, to cleanse the Earth, wants the bulk of humanity to leave it forever. “The solar system can easily support a trillion humans,” he said in 2018, and then “we would have a thousand Einsteins, and a thousand Mozarts.” Never mind that a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts no doubt already live on this planet in obscurity, crushed by capitalism. We don’t lack geniuses; rather, most geniuses lack the security that would allow them to flourish.

These schemes are unabashedly derived from science fiction. Musk has credited Asimov’s Foundation series, the saga of a far-future galactic empire, as one of his inspirations, and stashed a digital copy of the books aboard one SpaceX rocket. Bezos, a Trekkie and a fan of Iain M. Banks’s Culture series (another utopian space opera), draws his plans from the nonfictional but fantastical work of late Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill. His namesake “O’Neill Cylinders” refer to pairs of ginormous solar-powered habitats that would produce artificial gravity through rotation. Prompted by NASA, the professor cooked up this idea in the 1970s with the help of some freshman undergrads and financing from Stewart Brand, the California “post-libertarian” futurist of Whole Earth Catalog fame.

Considering the fanciful nature of the enterprise, it’s fair to wonder whether the private-sector space race is merely a very expensive hobby for nerdy oligarchs. They can’t possibly be serious about space colonies. Can they?

I’m afraid that they are serious, and they’re not alone. In November, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius hosted an event at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., titled “Our Future in Space.” Bezos shared the stage with the Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines; NASA Administrator Bill Nelson; Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb, and other fancy folk. The discussion provided a window into establishment thinking. Bezos wowed the crowd with descriptions of the bounty awaiting future generations born on his O’Neill Cylinders. “These colonies will not be like the International Space Station. They’ll have rivers and forests and wildlife,” he said. Amazon Prime will be built in, he added, with “hypersonic delivery.” That got a laugh, but considering his place in the space program today, such pronouncements are tantamount to national policy. Loeb, more modestly, advocated for space exploration via computerized probes, but the professor has only raised $2 million toward that end. Blue Origin holds government contracts worth more than $275 million in the current fiscal year. If Bezos and Musk are the Don Quixotes of space, the U.S. government is full of Sancho Panzas. Entrepreneurs involved with the Chinese space program, who rely more on regional rather than central government support, are reportedly jealous of the close ties Musk and Bezos enjoy with their government. As one Chinese space researcher lamented to China Daily, “The rapid rise of SpaceX can’t be copied in China because NASA has granted it an unprecedented level of support, ranging from infrastructure and technology to experience.” Even America’s communist rival sees state-sponsored corporate conquest as a more audacious model than their system can manage.

Failure to Launch

How likely is it that the space lords can deliver? Even a casual observer could note that private space companies have a long record of blown deadlines and spectacular failures. At least seven SpaceX Starship rockets have exploded in the past two years, per a highlight reel. Such setbacks may come with the territory. Nevertheless, rocketry is the lowest of many hurdles standing between the billionaire colonizers and their off-world imperium.

Some of the daunting engineering challenges they face are described in a two-year study NASA commissioned in 2017 from the Institute for Defense Analyses. NASA’s roadmap calls for the construction of a station called Gateway in lunar orbit beginning in 2024; it will serve as a staging ground for manned missions to Mars. But it’s all a bit theoretical. The Gateway requires technologies that “have not been previously demonstrated at the scale required”; the same caveat goes for the tech needed to fly to Mars. The perilous human health risks remain poorly understood. Very few people have spent more than a month in space. The IDA projects NASA’s Mars mission to take 1,100 days round trip, and that’s without touching down. (In contrast to Musk’s braggadocio, NASA isn’t confident about being able to land cargo on Mars because of the thin atmosphere.) The dangers multiply the more time people spend in the vacuum, locked inside a can with finite provisions and oxygen. A task so mundane as doing the laundry produces lingering airborne particles. Foods with a year-plus shelf life may prove insufficiently nutritious—so astronauts could starve. Then there’s cosmic radiation. Now imagine another toilet springs a leak.

How likely is it that the space lords can deliver? Even a casual observer could note that private space companies have a long record of blown deadlines and spectacular failures.

I expect that if Musk ever executes his Mars mission, everyone on the trip will meet a horrifying, untimely end. Musk acknowledges this risk: “A bunch of people probably will die,” he has said. Of course, he’d prefer they be valorized as pioneers, not remembered as sacrifices to the madness of a corner-cutting billionaire.

Ah, yes, the bottom line. The IDA reckons the cost to reach the first successful orbital Mars mission will reach $121 billion, with a launch in 2037 at the earliest. Musk boasts he can land humans on the planet by 2026 for only $10 billion. In a 2017 talk later removed from SpaceX’s website, Musk said he planned to launch cargo missions to Mars as early as 2022—which is clearly not going to happen. Call it overconfidence or sheer hucksterism, but it’s no mystery why the overseers of the U.S. space program would favor smaller numbers and shorter deadlines.

Both Bezos and Musk aim to dramatically reduce the cost of spaceflight. This, they believe, is the key to unlocking our multi-planetary future. They’ve undeniably made advances with reusable rockets. But I’m skeptical that an obsession with the bottom line can produce the momentous advances required to, say, build a self-contained floating city for a million people. Can space colonization be done on the cheap? Only with an increased tolerance for sacrifice. The IDA study addressed the question thusly: “Commercial launch vehicles [like those made by SpaceX and Blue Origin] may be less reliable than launch vehicles built under traditional cost-plus contracting and mission assurance approaches, but the lower costs may more than make up for the increased risk of failure.” In other words: So what if Musk’s rockets blow up? They’re cheaper.

Given past performance, the odds are that neither Musk nor Bezos will live to see their dreams become reality. It would be a mistake, however, to laugh off these difficult tasks as impossible. For all the limits of current technology, the vast distances involved, and the hostility of off-world environments, the space lords have a number of factors working in their favor.

First, as Cruz noted, they benefit from a bipartisan commitment to privatization. The die was cast as early as JFK’s 1962 “we choose to go to the Moon” speech, in which he extolled the “great number of new companies, and tens of thousands of new jobs” created by the space program. NASA further embraced outsourcing in the 1970s, and the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act opened the door to private launches. But it’s only recently that, despite discouraging language in longstanding international treaties, U.S. companies have been invited to claim ownership over the heavens. In April 2020, Trump signed an executive order proclaiming that “Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space.”

Despite recent growth, private investment remains far below what the space lords require. Until they can prove that fortunes can be made, not only burned, in zero gravity, Bezos and Musk will be financing their ambitions out of pocket, abetted by whatever funds they can wring from the U.S. Treasury. That said, it’s entirely possible public resources will provide ample subsidy for incremental advances that can eventually take Musk and Bezos where they want to go. They’re counting on it.

Certainly, few in government question the space privateers divine right to profit. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders would be an exception. In a November floor speech, he called a $10 billion handout to Blue Origin in the Pentagon budget bill “beyond laughable,” adding, “It is not acceptable that the two wealthiest people in this country—Mr. Musk and Mr. Bezos—take control over our space efforts to return to the Moon and maybe even the extraordinary accomplishment of getting to Mars.” Raising the billionaires’ taxes, as Sanders wants, would also help bring the space program back under public control. Musk calls Sanders “a taker, not a maker” and tweeted at the Senator, “I keep forgetting that you’re still alive.” Let’s give that man a planet!

Musk claims Mars will be the planet of opportunity, promising “an explosion of entrepreneurial activity, because Mars will need everything from iron foundries to pizza joints.”

And while present activities like space tourism seem a lark, they do provide a corporate foothold. Blue Origin has partnered with companies, including Boeing, and universities, led by Arizona State, to build a “mixed use business park” in space. Called Orbital Reef, this suburban-sounding outpost is supposed to be operational by the end of the decade. But thus far, the most lucrative niche in space has been commercial satellites. Musk has moved aggressively in this area, with the goal of funding his Mars mission. Since 2019, SpaceX has launched more than sixteen hundred “Starlink” internet-relay satellites into orbit, spoiling the view for astronomers and sparking debate about who has the right to alter the night sky. As it happens, the proliferation of commercial satellites exacerbates a problem that threatens future development in space: debris.

What’s more, the technologies needed to intercept, capture, and dispose of this space junk are similar to those needed to mine asteroids—a prospect that makes space entrepreneurs giddy. One of the largest asteroid mining concerns to date, Planetary Resources, raised more than $50 million from the likes of Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, plus the government of Luxembourg, which is bullish on space privatization. The company quickly fizzled out; in 2018 it was acquired by a blockchain company that sold off its assets. Despite such a high-profile recent failure, the multi-billion and even trillion-dollar valuations expected for asteroids containing platinum or rare earth minerals may prove irresistible. According to a 2020 paper authored by Andrew Rivkin, a planetary astronomer at the Johns Hopkins University, and cosigned by nineteen other academics and NASA scientists, “it is only a matter of time” until a well-funded asteroid mining concern takes off, “either as part of an effort to develop a market or in anticipation of one.”

Finally, there is always the chance of an unexpected breakthrough. As discussed at the National Cathedral event and publicized just about everywhere, the Pentagon and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have affirmed the reality of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena—objects witnessed by trained observers and verified by advanced sensors, which travel with shocking speed and maneuverability, seemingly impervious to gravity and inertia. Feats deemed impossible may actually be demonstrated in our own atmosphere. It sounds far-out, but perhaps, with government support, scientists will figure out how these objects work. Then maybe the trip to Mars no longer takes two hundred days. Maybe it takes a week. Or a blink. What then? Do we let Musk and Bezos simply purchase sovereignty over the stars?

All Your Space Are Belong to Us

Capital is staking unprecedented claims. In Genesis, God said to “fill the Earth and subdue it”; no such instructions apply to celestial bodies. Astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz, who organized a 2018 conference on “Decolonizing Mars,” says Musk’s plan would mean giving up on discovering the history of Earth’s neighbor. If there is life on other planets, human settlement could easily destroy it. But who cares about some lousy extraterrestrial microbes? The privatized space race is all about control.

Space privatization is a recipe for corporate totalitarianism, and not only inside the hypothetical off-world colonies. The costs involved are so great, and the stakes so high, that moving forward with such plans necessitates a de facto capture of the public sector by private interests.

Predictably, the space lords’ colonies would be governed as fiefdoms dressed up as libertarian paradises. An O’Neill Cylinder or an uninhabited planet might seem to satisfy the colonial fantasy of a blank canvas for economic and political expression. But no. The easel, the palette, the pigments, and the brushes will belong to the space lords, not to mention royalties in perpetuity from any intellectual property created using their space technologies.

Musk, audaciously, says existing laws won’t apply in his Martian sandbox. The terms of service for SpaceX’s Starlink specify that “the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities. Accordingly, disputes will be settled through self-governing principles, established in good faith, at the time of Martian settlement.” Musk says he favors “direct democracy” on Mars. Sure, OK. No democracy can exist where one company controls the life support systems. Vote against the boss? No rations for you. Labor unrest? Try striking without oxygen. Musk claims Mars will be “the planet of opportunity,” promising “an explosion of entrepreneurial activity, because Mars will need everything from iron foundries to pizza joints.” Like many awful bosses, Musk imagines intolerable working conditions can be smoothed over with pizza on Fridays.

Bezos, likewise, casts himself as a beneficent facilitator of off-world commerce. Once his space colonies are established, he wants the entire Earth to be zoned for “light industry,” with polluting activities moving off our home planet. It sounds unpracticable, but let’s roll with his idea. Earth would become a nature park, overseen by enlightened caretakers. The prospect of global zoning restrictions might appeal to environmentalists. But this proposal is coming from a rapacious capitalist who made his fortune burning fossil fuels. What he wants is a global mandate for anyone engaged in “heavy” manufacturing to pay him a hefty tax. Consider: Bezos would own the means of access to space (his rockets), as well as the infrastructure required to do business there (his colonies). At that point, his control over planetary logistics would make Amazon’s chokehold on e-commerce seem quaint—and establish Blue Origin as a universal monopoly.

The mind travels to some dark places imagining life for the space lords’ subjects. Their record as employers does not inspire confidence. Amazon systematically inflicts physical injury on warehouse workers and psychological damage on office staff. In September, a group of twenty-one current and former Blue Origin employees published an open letter decrying the company’s “toxic,” sexist, and abusive environment; dissent was stifled and safety concerns ignored, driving some to suicidal thoughts. “One directive held out SpaceX as a model, in that ‘burnout was part of their labor strategy,’” the letter noted. And indeed, Musk’s tyrannical tendencies are notorious. As I reported in my 2018 book on Silicon Valley, SpaceX had a revealing nickname among some employees: SlaveX. Press reports depict workers subjected to grueling twelve-hour shifts and impromptu 1 a.m. meetings, all to ensure that Musk’s Starship factory operates around the clock—this despite findings by Congress that overly demanding schedules “directly contributed” to the 1986 Challenger disaster. Musk brags about demanding personal approval via email over the smallest production issues. How would that work when it takes a radio signal up to twenty minutes to travel between planets?

On Musk’s Mars, there would be literally no escape from his maniacal, absolute authority. He says enlisting to work there would be voluntary. What if someone wants to quit? Would they have to buy their way home? I’m doubtful Musk will find enough people eager to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for a one-way ticket to guaranteed isolation and likely death on a freezing rock. It seems more likely he’ll adopt a proven model, indentured servitude, and front travel costs for those who sign away their rights.

There are many arguments about what laws should apply to people in space. In my view, it’s all academic until somebody builds a sustainable off-world habitat. Existing treaties may proscribe an East India Company scenario on Mars. But if Musk gets there first with the blessing of the U.S. government, who’ll stop him? How much influence could any terrestrial government wield over activities tens of millions of miles away? And why would any nation be inclined to assert such authority when its economy and security have grown inextricable from the fortunes of private space companies?

Both Bezos and Musk are clear about how they see the role of government: to make amenable laws, to buy their rockets, and to foot the bill for research and development. Asked at the National Cathedral whether people should be comfortable with the growing role of the private sector in space, Bezos said yes, of course, and laid out a task for vestigial civic institutions: “Government will still have a role to play,” he said, “but they should be doing the really hard things.” For instance, he went on, developing “hyperspace point-to-point travel” is best left to the public sector.

And if hyperspace travel proves impossible, hey, at least it wasn’t his money burned. Witness the space lord mindset. The richest man in the world, who pays almost no taxes, thinks public money should underwrite his conquest of the universe. While he hoards glory and power like a budding Baron Harkonnen, zipping between the stars and enjoying the fruits of a renewed Eden, we plebes do the “the really hard things”—toiling to grow his fortune, breathing recycled air, eating space paste, and slowly forgetting how luxurious it was to inhabit a self-sustaining ecosystem that wasn’t owned by one strange bald man. Best case, life in a Bezos colony sounds like being trapped in an airport. At least there’s Mozart!

Musk might be even more deranged. In 2015, he went on Stephen Colbert’s CBS late-night show and talked about his plans to terraform Mars. Colbert asked how. Musk explained the fastest way to warm the Martian climate would be to “drop thermonuclear weapons over the poles.” Colbert replied by calling Musk a supervillain. (Correct. Specifically, he’s setting himself up as the antagonist in Total Recall.) Scientists noted that Musk’s plan wouldn’t work. It raised other practical questions, too, namely: Where would Musk get a nuke? If the day comes when the space lords control nuclear arsenals, you’ll know there’s been a regime change.

Space privatization is a recipe for corporate totalitarianism, and not only inside the hypothetical off-world colonies. The costs involved are so great, and the stakes so high, that moving forward with such plans necessitates a de facto capture of the public sector by private interests. Any show of accountability for a company that claims dominion over an entire planet would be just that—a show. Humanity would be wise to imagine a different future.

It’s not that there couldn’t be good reasons to move people into space. But militaries and corporations must not call the shots. In 1963, JFK proposed a joint lunar mission with the Soviet Union. That now sounds like a radically different way of thinking. If we were able to envision international partnerships, Congress might repeal the 2011 Wolf Amendment that forbids NASA from cooperating with China. And if we were willing to tax the space lords back down to Earth, their ill-gotten fortunes could be plowed into public, international scientific efforts. The United States could then ratify the 1979 Moon Treaty, which bans private ownership over extraterrestrial real estate and establishes space resources as the “common heritage of mankind.” Once all that’s done, there will still be roles for space entrepreneurs. Maybe they can deliver pizza.