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Musk, Bezos, and the Folly of Billionaires in Space


At the Bookforum website, Ken Kalfus reviews a new book that delves into the space-exploration ambitions of egomaniacal billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos by Christian Davenport examines the progress that Musk and Bezos have made in their rocket programs, and asks why space travel in the US has shifted from a government project to a private undertaking of the mega-rich. As Kalfus point out, these projects are less likely to elevate humankind as a whole than extend present-day terrestrial inequalities into the cosmos. Read an excerpt from the review below, or the full text here.

The obvious and mistaken analogy invoked by science fiction and “the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos,” as Davenport’s overblown subtitle puts it, is the European settlement of the Americas, the model for space exploration since human travel beyond the atmosphere was conceived. But the analogy fails to convey the actual reality of space and the actual hostile conditions on other planets. When Columbus “discovered” America, millions of people had already been living there for thousands of years. Its land, rivers, and coastal waters teemed with good things to eat. America had breathable air.

Space enthusiasts speak of humanity being saved by interplanetary colonization, but it wouldn’t be the whole of humanity going to Mars, of course, even if Musk charges no more than $200,000, the figure cited by Davenport for a ticket. The rest of us, and our children, will still have to face potential terrestrial catastrophe. Would we really care that other people (and their genetic material) were saved? Meanwhile, a Mars colony would demand Earth’s resources for decades or centuries to come. A new kind of built-in inequality is likely to be the natural consequence of a space settlement program established by a Silicon Valley billionaire.

Image: SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch, CA, December 22, 2017. Kevin Gill/Wikicommons. Via Bookforum.