On May 30, SpaceX finally launched astronauts into space more than two years behind schedule. President Donald Trump was on hand for the launch. After pushing for the militarization of space with the formation of the US Space Force, Trump fused his own vision with that of SpaceX founder Elon Musk, declaring, “We’ll soon be landing on Mars and we’ll soon have the greatest weapons ever imagined in history.”
Early in Trump’s presidency, Musk faced criticism for being part of the administration’s advisory council and refusing to step down even as Trump signed his signature Muslim ban. It was believed Musk was hoping to benefit from greater public subsidies, on top of the billions NASA gave to SpaceX, and he’s set to do so as part of Trump’s plan to get astronauts back on the moon by 2024. More recently, the two have found themselves of the same mind on the pandemic as they shared misleading health information and Musk echoed Trump’s calls to “open the economy” and give people their “freedom” back.
The May 30 launch symbolized both Trump’s desire to project an image of revived American greatness and Musk’s need not only to bolster the myth that makes his wealth possible, but to set the foundations for a privatized space industry.
The space billionaires — Musk and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos foremost among them — have little stake in the well-being of the majority of the population. Their space visions are designed for wealthy people like themselves, with little mention of where the working class would fit in. They’ve built their wealth on exploitation, and their visions of the future are little more than an extension of their present actions.
A History of Violence
The business practices of Musk and Bezos are increasingly well known and have been on clear display during the pandemic. Musk tried to claim Tesla’s Fremont, California factory was “essential” until authorities forced him to close it; then he reopened it in defiance of health orders. As Tesla CEO, Musk has a long history of opposing the unionization of workers, presiding over a high rate of worker injuries (which the company tried to cover up), and even having a former worker hacked and harassed after he became a whistleblower.
Meanwhile, Bezos has a similar history of abusing Amazon workers. Amazon’s warehouses are known for having higher injury rates than the industry average, the company has fought unionization, and the stories of the terrible conditions experienced by workers are legendary. During the pandemic, that has continued, with the company failing to enforce social distancing or provide adequate protective equipment until workers began walking out, refusing to be open about infection information, and firing workers who dared criticize the company, all while Bezos’s wealth has increased by more than $30 billion.
But it goes beyond that, because the worldviews of these billionaires began to be formed long before they started the empires they currently lord over.
Musk did not have a regular childhood, but rather a wealthy upbringing in apartheid South Africa. His father was an engineer and owned part of an emerald mine in Zambia, telling Business Insider, “We were very wealthy. We had so much money at times we couldn’t even close our safe.” In Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, Ashlee Vance describes how Musk got money from his father when he was starting one of his original ventures. He also had a particular admiration for his grandfather, who moved to apartheid South Africa from Canada after rallying “against government interference in the lives of individuals.”
Bezos has a not dissimilar story. His father was a well-off oil engineer in Cuba while Fulgencio Batista was in power. In Bit Tyrants, Rob Larson explains that Bezos’s father left the island after the Cuban Revolution and passed his libertarian views down to his son. Bezos’s parents invested nearly $250,000 in Amazon in 1995 as it was getting started.
These space barons made their billions through the exploitation of their workers and came from well-off backgrounds made possible from resource extraction. When digging into their visions for a future in space, it’s clear that they seek to extend these conditions into the cosmos, not challenge them in favor of space exploration for the benefit of all.
The Future They Want
Musk and Bezos are the leading drivers of the modern push to privatize and colonize space through their respective companies, SpaceX and Blue Origin. Their visions differ slightly, with Musk preferring to colonize Mars, while Bezos has more interest in building space colonies in orbit.
In 2016, Musk claimed he would begin sending rockets to Mars in 2018. That never happened, but it hasn’t ended his obsession. Musk is determined to make humans a multi-planetary species, framing our choice as either space colonization or the risk of extinction. Bezos says that Earth is the best planet in our solar system, but if we don’t colonize space we doom ourselves to “stasis and rationing.”
These framings serve the interests of these billionaires, and make it seem like colonizing space is an obvious and necessary choice when it isn’t. It ignores their personal culpability and the role of the capitalist system they seek to reproduce in causing the problems they say we need to flee in the first place.
Billionaires have a much greater carbon footprint than ordinary people, with Musk flying his private jet all around the world as he claims to be an environmental champion. Amazon, meanwhile, is courting oil and gas companies with cloud services to make their business more efficient, and Tesla is selling a false vision of sustainability that purposely serves people like Musk, all while capitalism continues to drive the climate system toward the cliff edge. Colonizing space will not save us from billionaire-fueled climate dystopia.
But these billionaires do not hide who would be served by their futures. Musk has given many figures for the cost of a ticket to Mars, but they’re never cheap. He told Vance the tickets would cost $500,000 to $1 million, a price at which he thinks “it’s highly likely that there will be a self-sustaining Martian colony.” However, the workers for such a colony clearly won’t be able to buy their own way. Rather, Musk tweeted a plan for Martian indentured servitude where workers would take on loans to pay for their tickets and pay them off later because “There will be a lot of jobs on Mars!”
Bezos is even more open about how the workforce will have to expand to serve his vision, but has little to say about what they’ll be doing. His plan to maintain economic “growth and dynamism” requires the human population to grow to a trillion people. He claims this would create “a thousand Mozarts and a thousand Einsteins” who would live in space colonies that are supposed to house a million people each, with the surface of Earth being mainly for tourism. Meanwhile, industrial and mining work would move into orbit so as not to pollute the planet, and while he doesn’t explicitly acknowledge it, it’s likely that’s where you’ll find many of those trillion workers toiling for their space overlord and his descendants.
Space Shouldn’t Serve Capitalists
In 1978, Murray Bookchin skewered a certain brand of futurism that sought to “extend the present into the future” and desired “multinational corporations to become multi-cosmic corporations.” Much of this future thinking obsesses about possible changes to technology, but seeks to preserve the existing social and economic relations — “the present as it exists today, projected, one hundred years from now,” as Bookchin put it. That’s at the core of the space billionaires’ vision for the future.
Space has been used by past US presidents to bolster American power and influence, but it was largely accepted that capitalism ended at the edge of the atmosphere. That’s no longer the case, and just as past capitalist expansions have come at the expense of poor and working people to enrich a small elite, so too will this one. Bezos and Trump may have a public feud, but that doesn’t mean that their mutual interest isn’t served by a renewed US push into space that funnels massive public funds into private pockets and seeks to open celestial bodies to capitalist resource extraction.
This is not to say that we need to halt space exploration. The collective interest of humanity is served by learning more about the solar system and the universe beyond, but the goal of such missions must be driven by gaining scientific knowledge and enhancing global cooperation, not nationalism and profit-making.
Yet that’s exactly what the space billionaires and American authoritarians have found common cause in, with Trump declaring that “a new age of American ambition has now begun” at a NASA press briefing just hours before cities across the country were placed under curfew last week. Before space can be explored in a way that benefits all of humankind, existing social relations must be transformed, not extended into the stars as part of a new colonial project.