Why Are Billionaires Like Jeff Bezos So Interested In Space?

By Marshall Auerback, a market analyst and commentator. Produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing is this year, and it’s worth recalling the memo that then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson wrote to President John F. Kennedy: “If we do not make the strong effort now, the time will soon be reached when the margin of control over space and over men’s minds through space accomplishments will have swung so far on the Russian side that we will not be able to catch up, let alone assume leadership.”That sense of urgency has shifted over the decades from government to the private sector, where billionaires like Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, among others, are displaying profound enthusiasm in regard to the notion of exploiting space. Their interest appears to go well beyond space tourism for the thrill-seeking one-percenters, even though that’s what gets most of the media attention. As Cathal O’Connell reports for Cosmos Magazine , “Already companies are sending up 3D printers to produce replacement tools in space. Next we could see orbiting factories making products for sale on Earth or automated robots constructing satellites the size of a football field.”If this all seems as exotic as those old 1930s “Flash Gordon” films did to the audiences of the day, recall that the experience of the Apollo 11 moon landing showed that reality has a way of catching up quickly to Hollywood fantasy (it also shows that when sufficient government resources are harnessed to a higher common purpose, good results can happen surprisingly quickly and efficiently). Once the likes of Bezos, Branson, Musk, and others find a way to economically hoist heavy machinery into space (and it is becoming more economic), permanent “off-Earth” manufacturing could become a reality. But this raises an interesting issue: who chooses the technological alternatives that set out our future? Should this decision solely be left in the domain of the private sector? Should space be privatized in this matter? What about NASA? Consider the future: Forget about the threat of moving a Midwestern plant from, say, Ohio, to Mexico or China. Next time, it could be a robot-filled factory in space that takes your job.To be clear, nobody is suggesting a return to medieval-style craft guilds. At the same time, it is worth noting certain salient aspects about technology: rather than acting in the service of mankind, technology has often been used in a way that creates a momentum of its own that establishes limits or controls what becomes socially possible. It is wrapped in an aura of linear progress and scientific inevitability, conveniently ignoring that its benefits are often skewed most heavily to the power brokers who initiate and champion its use. This is a principle danger of subcontracting space to billionaire plutocrats, whose ambitions and interests might be inconsistent with society’s broader public purpose. This is to say nothing of the increasing de-skilling of labor that could follow, if they are not integrated into this process somehow.Asthe Wall Street Journal’s Greg Ip notes, the government-sponsored race to the moon spurred considerable “advances in computers, miniaturization and software, and found its way into scratch-resistant lenses, heat-reflective emergency blankets and cordless appliances,” all of which had tremendous benefits for society as a whole. But today, the government has largely lost its “moonshot mindset” and space, in turn, has increasingly become the focus of the oligarch class, seeking to enhance profit opportunities as well as exploiting the increasing trend of displacing human labor with machines. This is despite the fact that Professor Seymour Melman’s own researchillustrated that if you give workers decision-making power on the shop floor, productivity tends to increase substantially.Without a doubt, there are many benefits to be derived from the work being done in the cosmos. For example, the microgravity conditions pertaining in space are considered ideal for developing materials, such as protein and virus crystals, observes Sarah Lewin, in a piece discussing the incipient development of “off-Earth manufacturing.” The insights developed by these crystals could enhance drug research and provide useful new therapies and medical treatments for infections and diseases (such as heart disease and organ transplants). Space also enhances the scope for producing high-tech materials, whose production is otherwise adversely affected by the Earth’s gravity, one example being a “fiber-optic cable called ZBLAN, … [which, w]hen manufactured in microgravity… is less likely to develop tiny crystals that increase signal loss. When built without those flaws, the cable can be orders of magnitude better at transmitting light over long distances, such as for telecommunications, la ...Read more

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