The Space Waste

September 21, 2018

ONE OF THE YEAR’S best magazine reads is Nicholas Schmidle’s outstanding article, “Rocket Man,” in the August 20th issue of the New Yorker. It’s the story of the test pilot Mark Stucky and his work with Virgin Galactic — the Richard Branson venture that hopes to begin carrying tourists into space.

While it wasn’t the author’s intent, the piece got me thinking.

Branson isn’t the only one pouring millions, or even billions of dollars into rockets. There’s an ongoing space race of sorts between three of the world’s most high-profile entrepreneurs: Branson, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk. Branson’s venture, focusing on suborbital space tourism, is the most modest of the three. Bezos’ company, called Blue Origin, is planning full-on orbital flights, while Musk’s SpaceX plans to operate huge reusable rocket ships and, eventually, to colonize Mars.

How realistic any of this is remains to be seen. But that’s not the point. The point is, succeed or fail, that so much money, resources, and brain power are being poured into what are essentially vanity projects. Yes, these are commercial companies that seek to make a profit. I get that. But these men (Bezos in particular) are already unfathomably wealthy and wield considerable influence in the realms of tech and elsewhere. Is it not a little, well, irresponsible of them to be so focused on outer space while, right here on planet Earth, things are in such desperate need of attention?

I’m talking about climate change, ecological destruction, overpopulation. The world is on the verge of environmental calamity; here are three guys who could actually, maybe, do something about it, or at least lead by example, and they’re talking about colonizing Mars. Am I the only one who finds this obnoxious?

I don’t know which of the three irks me more. The showman Branson has always been flamboyant and a little kooky, so I’ll give him a pass. (Plus he started a successful airline, and here at Ask the Pilot we dig airlines.) Jeff Bezos, though, is the richest person in the world. There’s just no excuse.

Still, it’s Musk who I find the most frustrating. His plans for space are by far the most audacious, and yet, meanwhile, he’s brought us some teasingly good innovations along the way. One wishes he’d prioritize those more strongly, and take the bigger step. If ever I found myself sitting next to him on an airplane, I’d say this:

Elon, why don’t you put aside space for a second. We have some enormous, impending problems right here on Earth, right now, that are going to impact everybody, and not in a good way. Civilization itself is going to face a crisis on a scale it has never seen before. You have wealth, power, and ideas. You have the chance to do something about it. Or at least try — it’s no better or worse of a wager than your extraterrestrial endeavors. And if ego is any part of this, consider: you have the chance to go down as one of the most important and influential people in history. Wouldn’t you prefer that be your legacy, rather than be remembered as the guy who built expensive electric cars and then squandered a fortune on a needless space fantasy?

This is a slippery philosophical slope, for sure. We expend huge sums of money on all sorts of superfluous things while people starve and major problems go unsolved. But somehow this feels different, and more urgent.

Richard, Jeff, and Elon, how about a conference call to maybe rearrange your priorities a bit. You can still pursue your space dreams, but maybe a bit later. At the moment, we kind of need you.

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37 Responses to “The Space Waste”
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  1. Mike says:

    Musk will be moot in this discussion soon. His house of cards is about to fold not too mention his personal problems.

  2. All of these guys remind me of Bond villains.
    Oddly, though, they all have big fan clubs now.

  3. Alan Gore says:

    Patrick, this is unfortunately the worst example of reasoning I have ever read from you. Your “priorities” argument is the one traditionally used against governmental space programs. When we contemplate how we might spend the next dollar of tax revenue, the rest of the universe seems far away. Getting your welfare check or fixing the potholes on your street always seem to have priority over something as distant as space exploration.

    Fortunately, technology has made whole priorities argument unnecessary. Robotic exploration of the solar system has proved to be so efficient at data return that this is now what NASA focuses on in its public programs. Unexpectedly and amazingly, the private sector has at the same time stepped in to save manned space flight. Each of our billionaires spends money on projects of personal interest, from Bill Gates and his medical programs in the developing world to Musk and his fascination with Mars.

    Manned space exploration of interesting targets beyond LEO is, moreover, very dangerous to those who participate in it, and will be for a generation to come. Only private space programs, responsible to nothing and no one, can assume this level of risk – yet each of these space entrepreneurs has no trouble finding people who are willing to undertake it.

    Outside of Silicon Valley, American engineering has stalled because we lack the vanity and hubris it takes to do large-scale things. I thank my lucky asteroids that SV has brought hubris back.

  4. M says:

    Please read the in depth interview of Elon Musk at to better understand his position.

  5. Connor Johnson says:

    While I can’t argue about Branson and Bezos, I must respectfully disagree with your grouping of Musk’s projects as “vanity”. His projects, which mostly come down to the final goal of colonizing Mars, is in the interest of preserving humanity (all eggs in one basket argument). Not to mention his work with Tesla- which is helping bring electric cars back middle-class availability- and his Giga batteries, which run on solar power. One such plant runs one of the Hawaiian islands, I forget which one.

    Mr. Musk was also on an advisory panel for the President, which he left when Trump pulled us out of the Paris Accords. Is he a perfect man? Of course not. But he’s got his priorities straight.

  6. Pier says:

    We need 1348 again

  7. Dennis Moyes says:

    Given the fact that competitive US launch capability is practically non-existent, and what there is frequently depends on Russian hardware (there is currently NO other option for manned flight) having Mr. Bezos and Mr. Musk competing for home-grown launch capability makes perfect sense. I suggest you read “Space Barons” for a more complete over-view of this situation. Having the capability to monitor Earth’s climate from space is essential in the battle against climate change and weather forecasting and I’m certain that you and I, as pilots, would be very sad to see the degradation of the GPS system or having to rely on a global navigation system provided by some not-necessarily-friendly country because we lack the wherewithal to launch replacement satellites.

  8. Rod says:

    My personal opinion is that there’s a hopeless plague of homo sapiens upon the Earth that has brought on a New Mass Extinction, of which we will be part. Nothing will save us.
    Which doesn’t mean that Right and Wrong no longer apply.

    PS: “Elon, you have the chance to do something about enormous, urgent problems right here on Earth. Or at least try — it’s no better or worse of a wager than your extraterrestrial endeavors. And if ego is any part of this, consider: you have the chance to go down as one of the most important and influential people in history.”

    Musk: “Look, I can’t even control my ego long enough to restrain myself from calling rescue-divers child-rapists. And you think I can achieve the perspective needed to consider what historians will make of me? Sheesh.”

  9. Tod says:

    In my mind Musk lost all his credibility with his stunt in Thailand

  10. mammoth says:

    There are better ways to save the planet–er, save humanity–from itself than believing that you can colonize Mars, which exists in perpetual sub-zero temperatures with no oxygen. Ultimately, though, mankind is doomed, even if we can balance population and resources. It’s only a matter of time until Earth is slammed by an asteroid, or looking far far down the road the sun expands during its death phase and incinerates all we hold dear to a cinder.

    Ultimately, these billionaires who seeks to colonize another plane are looking to save their own asses, rather than take the rest of us along with them.

  11. Stephen Stapleton says:

    At a certain point, one’s wealth lets one do what one wants, to follow one’s own dream. Fixing our global warming problem just doesn’t really interest Bezos, Musk, or Branson. As dire as the need may be (and I believe it is the single greatest threat to mankind), we’d truly be sacrificing some major freedom by forcing someone to use their intellect for a cause they just don’t care about.

    However, the main problem with global warming is the ever-increasing amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Yes, there are some other problem molecules, but CO2 is the main one. What we need is a device that removes CO2 from the air easily, cheaply, and efficiently. There are many, many people and organizations working on this specific task. I believe in human progress. I believe science and human ingenuity will solve this problem, too. I am willing to bet, ten years hence, there will be machines rapidly removing carbon from the atmosphere and returning levels to pre-industrial standards. There will be a time lag for the problem to slow and then reverse, but I trust a million truly interested minds working on the problem than the money of three billionaires.

    • Rod says:

      I envy your techno-fix optimism about a problem that’s wayyyy bigger than are our puny resources.
      As for “sacrificing some major freedom”, well, society also denies you the “freedom” to drive down a crowded street at max speed. Sometimes the rights of the collective OTHERS outweigh the rights of the individual.

      • Stephen Stapleton says:

        How can the problem be bigger than our “puny resources”? We created it with our use of fossil fuels. We didn’t know any better when we started using them at the beginning of the industrial age, but we know now. We can find a way to remove the added CO2, we can return the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels.

        • Rod says:

          You’ve never heard of concepts like “net positive feedback” or “runaway effect”? It isn’t all Simple Linear, you see. You don’t just wheel out your tech-fix and rewind what you’ve fed into the system. You can’t just unburn a burnt bridge.
          The world doesn’t work that way.

          The word “puny” hardly does justice to the pathetic scantiness of our resources. Not of our Ego naturally.

          • Stephen Stapleton says:

            While one can’t unburn a bridge (yet), one can remove pollutants. Dirty water can be made potable. We have effectively doubled the CO2 in the atmosphere and returning to the original amount will, over time, restore that balance. The atmosphere is a dynamic system. It is responding to our change and we can restore the previous equilibrium by returning to the state of that time. I am not suggesting this will be easy, but the path is relatively clear.

        • UncleStu says:

          Haven’t you heard? Global climate change is not happening. It is a Chinese plot to harm America.

          Of course, I’m being sarcastic but many millions of American voters actually believe that and it shows in their votes.

        • UncleStu says:

          Haven’t you heard? Global climate change is a hoax. It is a Chinese plot to harm America.

          Of course, I’m being sarcastic but many millions of American voters actually believe that and it shows in their votes.

  12. Matt Gailitis says:

    It will never cease to amaze me how people like those in the comment section below casually dismiss points made by people like Patrick.
    The Amazon guy truly is a reprehensible person. If he spent the same amount of energy talking about, say universal healthcare and redistribution of wealth as he did busting unions, the world would be a better place.
    I remember having a conversation with someone involved in a space program and he basically admitted that the main reason for his fascination with space exploration was to avoid people. He was a classic misanthrope.
    Obviously I’m generalizing here, but I’m sure you get my point.
    I don’t care if someone has enough money to fly his or her spaceship every weekend; but I do have a problem when pet projects are achievable while others suffer. I guess the word I’m trying to get at is as follows: perspective.

  13. Dave says:

    Did you hear about the Harvard study saying flight attendants and pilots have a much higher risk of cancers than regular public?

  14. Matt D says:

    Let’s just, for sake of argument, we confiscate two trillion dollars from the Plutocracy.

    Redistribute it equally to every single one of the 326 million people in the United States.

    That comes to a whopping six thousand bucks (approximately) apiece. In what, sort of meaningful way would THAT make a difference in the sense that it wouldn’t even buy a decent car, definitely not a house, would feed them for maybe a couple years, and is maybe a semester or two at a low end University?

    I get what you’re saying, but as others have said…..

  15. Ceri Reid says:

    I have always liked your postings, in Salon and now in this blog. But your gloom about environment and global society is, um, wrong. Read Rosling’s ‘Factfulness’ to get a better grip on that stuff.


    Ceri Reid

    • mark r. says:

      Patrick’s comments are understated.

      We are causing the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth.

      Most of the benefits from space exploration happened a half century ago.

      Some of the research was cover stories for war fighting.

      On Sept. 20, 1963 President Kennedy called off the Moon race in a speech to the UN. He offered to convert it to a cooperation effort with the Soviet Union. Unfortunately Krushchev took two months to think about it and our President was extra judicially removed from office. Now, hardly anyone remembers this.

      The idea of colonizing planet that people can live on for about a minute (no breathable atmosphere and it’s colder than Antarctica) suggests some people can have a high IQ but be stupid in more important ways.

      • Rod says:

        Thanks, mark, for making my point that Patrick’s points are, if anything, an understatement. Certainly not “um, wrong” (gosh, a one-word put-down — how convenient).

        Re Krushchev, I’d just like to point out that he was Not dictator of the USSR. He headed a collective leadership, with which he often had to struggle, and faced his own military/industrial complex, just like Kennedy.

        The Space Race was a symptom of the Cold War. I think both Kennedy and Krushchev were feverishly working to close down the entire Cold War. If it had been up to just them, it would have happened. (There’s plenty of evidence of this, for those with the eyes to see.)
        Also, you’ll notice that within a year of Kennedy’s speech, Both Ks had been removed from power — one way or another.

  16. Alex Metcalfe says:

    Couldn’t disagree more. Many of the inventions which change people’s lives on earth have come through investments in bleeding edge technology sectors such as the space race. There’s plenty of focus on earth’s problems already by governments around the world. At a time when these same governments are cutting space budgets, I’m glad we have these wealthy guys willing to continue pushing boundaries.

  17. Speed says:

    It has been reported by Business Insider (and others) that Jeff Bezos liquidates a billion dollars of his Amazon stock every year and puts it into Blue Origin — his space venture. A billion dollars a year is a lot of money and if given to a million very poor people it would make their lives better.

    But compared to the size of the major advanced economies (G7), that one billion dollars per year is just one thirty-six-millionth of their annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP)(Wikipedia). It is one seventy-eight-millionth of the world economy (Wikipedia). A small drop in a very big bucket.

    Coincidentally, C|Net reported last week, “Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveils new $2 billion Day One charitable fund.” reports,”The United States has dramatically increased federal spending fighting poverty over the last 50 years. Total welfare costs have risen from $1,437 per person in poverty in 1967 to $18,369 per person in 2017. That totals $73,475 for a family of four.”

  18. Patrick London says:

    Also, on a more general note regarding the often brought up argument that we waste too much money on space exploration, this money is actually not wasted per se. When we spend, say, $300m on a space mission, it’s not that this money is carried to the moon and dumped into a crater up there. Every (!) single dollar spent on space exploration is actually spent on Earth. Workers are paid, parts are bought from suppliers, keep local economies going, etc. So, the money really actually stays on Earth.

    • lmm says:

      Yes and no. The kerosene that’s burnt will never come back. More fundamentally, most of the money going into space exploration is paying for the time of talented engineers who could otherwise spend it designing improved bridges, sewers and what have you to improve life on earth.

      I think space travel is one of the most worthwhile things humanity can do – I’d stop spending money on art or music before I stopped spending it on space – but it costs what it costs and we should be honest about that.

  19. Alan Dahl says:

    I understand your criticizing of Bezos and that is certainly justified. Musk on the other hand is also the CEO of Tesla which is bringing us electric cars and solar roofs and a bunch of other technologies that will get us away from fossil fuels which is, in my opinion, a huge deal. He’s also brought us The Boring Company which will, in association with the various Hyperloop companies (something else Musk also launched) will bring us reliable electric high-speed medium-distance transport that will on many routes replace pollution-spewing aircraft. Lastly his motivation for Mars colonization isn’t vanity or hubris but a sincere desire to give Mankind a second home where we might survive if something goes sideways on Earth. So I’m willing to cut him some slack here. But by all means continue to push for some billionaire to tackle other issues down here on Earth as we have many.

    • Mark R. says:

      As a user of solar PV since 1990 I’m not impressed with Musk’s toys and plans. Electric cars do not get us away from fossil fuels, they are efficient ways to use fossil fuels and mineral ores. It takes concentrated energy to make, move, install PV. Road construction and maintenance takes asphalt, concrete and steel, whcih are not run by sunlight.

      I read about vacuum tube trains as a kid in the 1970s. I think Musk watched too many Hollywood movies, perhaps. Meanwhile, our actual train network is terrible and if we want transport as we enter the age of oil rationing (as fracking subsides and conventional oil and gas continue to decline) it would be nice to give this some attention. Relocalizing production for energy conservation also makes more sense than sending a billionaire into space.

      • Mark R. says:

        Also, the idea that sending someone to Mars (on a one way trip) somehow sets up a lifeboat in case we succeed in our war on Nature is one of the most ridiculous memes I’ve heard in my life. I enjoyed reading classic science fiction as a kid, but like religious texts, it’s not meant to be taken literally.

        There’s no place like home.

      • Alan Dahl says:

        Here in the Northwest where I live most of our power is hydro, wind or solar. The power that isn’t like the local coal plant will be shut down in the next 5 years. There will still be some natural gas and nuclear but over time I expect renewables to take over. The issue with Lithium mining is real one but I see LiIon batteries as a stepping stone to other battery technologies that will be much more resource efficient.

        With respect to the Hyperloop I’ve been following Hyperloop One’s progress and the most impressive thing is how serious they are. These aren’t a bunch of marketing people trying to sell vaporware, these are serious engineers who think they can make it work and work well. Perhaps they will fail but it won’t be from lack of engineering talent. Remember until the Wright Brothers took off flying was considered “impossible” by most experts of the day. I would not bet against these guys pulling it off.

  20. Gyula Bogar says:

    Patrick, this is the first time I strongly disagree with you. If people were thinking the way you do 100 years ago, commercial air travel would not exist. Flying would just be a dangerous science, unnecessarily expensive, and considered “obnoxious” when we can spend all that money that is being poured into commercializing air travel into improving our lives here on land.

    • Jason says:

      While your points are not without merit, this is a debate that’s been ongoing since the beginning of the space age. Go back and watch coverage of the Apollo missions you’ll see a number of “man on the street” interviews with people saying essentially the same thing — why are we putting time and resources into moonshots when people are starving on Earth?

      I’m sympathetic to the argument while ultimately disagreeing with it. Should every wealthy donor who underwrites a museum instead shunt those funds into nothing but fighting disease or hunger? If they did, at what point would we consider those problems solved and deem it OK to return to more frivolous spending? The human condition requires we do all of these things, simultaneously.

      While one can argue against the extravagance of spaceflight, there are two important rebuttals: First, I believe we have all benefited from human and mechanized spaceflight. By seeing the Earth from the moon’s surface, and by having the people who did it tell us about the experience. Second, the money going toward spaceflight probably wouldn’t “solve” the complex problems we have here. Address them? Sure, but again what’s enough?

      And what about other forms of waste? Why pick on spaceflight?

      I happily and loudly support my taxes going to everyone’s healthcare and other social safety nets. I’d support much more and will be glad to contribute. But I want some going to NASA too. Musk, et al, have my blessing.

    • Steve Jones says:

      I agree with your sentiment – humans are, and hopefully always will be, explorers, and we shouldn’t hold off from space until everything else is solved because then it will never happen. However, Jeff and Elon’s attitudes both leave something to be desired. Jeff is on record saying that he doesn’t know what else to spend his money on, when he has more than enough to do space and some good on Terra Firma at the same time (he could give the Gates Foundation a few billion and not even notice). Elon has made huge advances in making space access cheaper and easier, which I think is fantastic. But it all smacks of big boys’ toys more than anything else. His exploits with the submarine in Thailand, ignoring the advice of the experts at the scene and ultimately getting in the way more than helping are a prime example. I wonder how much of his hand space plan is in the same category…

      • Mark R. says:

        Mr. Bezos could spend his money increasing the wages he pays his employees – at least until they are replaced by robots.

      • UncleStu says:

        “we shouldn’t hold off from space until everything else is solved because then it will never happen.“

        And if “space” never happens, so what?

        Neither humanity, nor whichever country you live in, nor our home planet lose anything.

        Meanwhile, real human beings are suffering.

        You’re right. But for all three of them, “…it all smacks of big boys’ toys more than anything else.”