Billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos both rocked to the edge of space and safely landed back on Earth this month. Another billionaire, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla, plans to make a similar trip.
Many here on Earth dismissed these billionaire entrepreneurs’ space travel and competition as a waste of time, money, and other valuable resources, which could be better spent solving earthly problems such as hunger and poverty. Critics shrug off such space travel as billionaires one-upping each other’s enormous egos and wealth, as if owning the world’s biggest yacht is no longer enough.
Why, naysayers ask, should we mere mortals celebrate these billionaires for playing with their expensive new toys in a different sandbox than the rest of us? These criticisms are unfair and miss the true significance of these events.
The space adventures of Branson, Bezos, and Musk are worth celebrating for several reasons. First, it is extraordinary that these individuals and their private enterprises have accomplished something only a few nations have done so far.
Reigniting American Space Power
Bezos’s launch date, July 20, pays homage to American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who became the first humans to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969. Armstrong and Aldrin’s historical journey was made possible by the support of an entire nation. Between 1960 and 1973, the U.S. government spent $28 billion ($280 billion in today’s dollars) to send American astronauts to the Moon. More than half a century later, still only a few countries have sent humans to space because it remains costly and technically challenging.
As the U.S. government shifted its priorities and winded down its space shuttle program in 2011, NASA didn’t have any functioning, manned spaceship for years. American astronauts had to hitch rides with the Russians to reach the International Space Station (ISS). But Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX have injected new life into the U.S. space program.
On May 30, 2020, American astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken lifted off from American soil for the first time in nearly a decade. They reached ISS by riding the Dragon capsule sitting on top of the Falcon 9 rocket, both built by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX. Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is working on a new engine to “replace Russian-made engines currently used for sensitive military and intelligence launches.”
Thanks to these private American companies, the United States space program is regaining its lead in space competition among nations. The need to rely on an often-hostile adversary has been greatly reduced, which is itself an achievement worth celebrating.
Space, Brought to You by the Free Market
Second, these billionaires’ participation and competition in space have significantly lowered the launch cost of space activities and made space explorations more accessible. As entrepreneurs, they have demonstrated laser-like focus on cost reduction without compromising quality (though some have expressed frustration that hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are going to the space exploits of men like Branson, who suffer from no lack of capital).
Musk’s SpaceX reduced the cost per kilogram payload to space to $2,720, compared with $54,500 under the space shuttle program. The low price tag has enabled NASA to conduct more missions cost-effectively and made space activities affordable for many developing nations and private entities.
These billionaires achieved such drastic cost reduction, not by cutting corners, but through innovation. “Bezos & Musk *already* do something NASA & its contractors never have: They send rockets to space, & re-fly them,” noted historian and author Charles Fishman. “Quickly, inexpensively, reliably. You know, like Southwest ‘re-uses’ its Boeing 737s. That is an incredible, thrilling breakthrough.”
Musk’s SpaceX, Fishman continued, “has done something only 3 *countries* have done: Design, engineer, and build all-new rockets. Design, engineer, and build an all-new space capsule. Then send them over & over into orbit.”
Space flight is inherently risky. It’s commendable that Branson and Bezos have such confidence in their technologies that they were willing to risk their lives for their companies’ first manned flights. That’s hardly the behavior of a government-run space program administrator.
Such tolerance for risk-taking is part of why these gentlemen have been wildly successful. Their successes are a powerful testament to the free market economic system and a meritocracy society.
Bringing Space Travel to the Common Man
Third, thanks to these billionaires’ risk-taking efforts, space travel may become affordable for many of us within our lifetime. Although space travel is prohibitively expensive now (Branson’s Virgin Galactic charges $250,000 per person), history has shown how competition and technological advances drive down the costs of transformative products.
Eventually, the masses become able to afford products and services that were once only available to the rich and powerful. For example, decades ago, only the rich could afford to travel by airplane. Today, most of us won’t think twice about hopping on a plane.
When the first generation of cell phones came out in the 1980s, it was an ultimate status symbol for someone to hold one of those phones, as big as a brick, in public. Today’s cell phones are not only affordable but have more processing powers than a room full of giant computers from decades ago.
Now, the lives of billions of people worldwide revolve around their cell phones daily: sending messages and photos, keeping in touch with loved ones, making payments and deposits, serving customers, closing business deals, finding driving directions, or even organizing political protests. Based on the speed of innovations, the price tag of space travel will likely follow a similar trajectory and become affordable for many of us.
The Risk-Taking American Spirit
The ultimate question about space travel and exploration is why it matters. On a national level, President Kennedy gave the best explanation in his famous “let’s go to the moon” speech in 1962.
“The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time,” Kennedy said. “No nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.”
America’s best bet to win the space race against authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia is our free-market economic system, enabling entrepreneurs such as Bezos and Musk to take risks, drive technological innovations, and yes, even be rewarded handsomely for their efforts.
On a personal level, what Branson, Bezos, and Musk are doing is inspiring. America is the wealthiest and most powerful nation today because it was founded and built by risk-takers. As we slowly come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is hard to miss how many Americans have become risk-averse.
While we should do whatever it takes to keep ourselves and our families safe and healthy, we also must acknowledge that life is not risk-free, and COVID-19 may never go away. We cannot let fear prevent us from trying new adventures, exploiting new frontiers, and reaching for the stars.
Muhammad Ali once said: “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.” Rather than dismissing billionaires’ space adventures, we should celebrate their risk-taking endeavors, appreciate the opportunities they help create, and be inspired to take risks in our lives.