The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The billionaires’ space race benefits the rest of us. Really.

Billionaire Richard Branson floats in zero gravity on board Virgin Galactic's passenger rocket plane VSS Unity on July 11. (Virgin Galactic/Via Reuters)
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On Sunday, Richard Branson became the first billionaire in space. In the video promoting the trip, joy is evident on his face as he unbuckles his safety harness and floats free from gravity. Back on Earth, reactions were … less enthusiastic.

Quibblers argued that the short suborbital flight didn’t really count as being “in space.” Pundits lamented that Branson is damaging the environment with unnecessary emissions and wasting resources that could have gone to Earth’s needier billions — a complaint they extend to Jeff Bezos, the owner of The Post who is set to take his own private space flight later this month. Author Sim Kern pointed out just how difficult it is to keep someone alive in space for any length of time: “I don’t know if they realize the futility … Or if being a billionaire makes you so delusional that they really think they can buy a Mars colony in their lifetimes.”

I’ll pause to note that the few billionaires I’ve met in my professional life have demonstrated a better-than-average familiarity with reality. They also tend to have a better-than-average familiarity with how innovation works. So they probably understand what their critics clearly don’t: how even a fleeting roller-coaster ride into the Earth’s thermosphere can be an enduring contribution to humanity.

True, at this moment, space flight is not very useful. As Kern points out, space wants to kill you, so certainly substantial time keeping one person alive and functioning in space requires a team of round-the-clock specialists groundside, a huge amount of money and some of the most impressive engineering feats in human history, from rocket design to space toilets. In exchange, we mostly get — a person in space. And Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Bezos’s Blue Origin will be sending people up for minutes, not days.

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But one could say the same thing about virtually everything humanity has done since we left our fellow apes behind. History is littered with explorers and colonies that failed, the experimental technologies that blew up in the faces of their inventors — metaphorically or literally.

Every human alive today is the unlikely heir of adventurers who were willing to dare despite the odds. And every new breakthrough, from fire onward, was undoubtedly deprecated by neighbors who considered the thing a pointless waste: Why mess around with flint, or try to take on a gazelle, when you could be digging for grubs or perhaps picking lice out of someone’s hair?

Nor was this being exactly unreasonable: There’s often a long gap between discovery and payoff. It took decades for automobiles or airplanes to become more than a rich man’s toy or a publicity stunt. Likely substantial time elapsed between the first human attempt to transit the ocean and the establishment of regular shipping routes — and a whole lot of humans surely died along the way. Undoubtedly, their fellows on the shore complained that they were frittering away their lives (and a lot of perfectly good wood).

Space is even less hospitable to human life, of course, but our resources are also much greater than what our ancestors could muster. Government resources have been, and will continue to be, an important part of that story: Given the scale of the projects modern science is undertaking, it will be hard for humanity to advance without the kind of funding that only governments can muster. But that kind of spending can go even further in partnership with private institutions that bring their own unique strengths to the table.

The advantage of government space programs is a scale no private entity can match. The disadvantage of government space programs is that they are few in number, constrained by political considerations — such as: Is this key component built in an important congressional district? — and ultimately at the mercy of people who don’t see why we should bother.

That’s why what Branson and Bezos are doing matters immensely. They can’t match NASA’s budget, so they’ve had to settle for smaller ambitions. But even brief commercial flights mean that we won’t lose space entirely if that handful of governments lose interest. And such flights are a great platform for the kind of incremental innovation that eventually transformed Orville and Wilbur Wright’s motorized box kite into a Boeing 737, and Karl Benz’s gasoline-powered tricycle into a sleek C-class.

That is the kind of innovation that private entities tend to do better than government — in no small part because private entities face more continuous competitive pressures to go a little farther, a little faster, a little more comfortably. If humanity is eventually going to the stars, that kind of innovation will be an essential part of how we’ll get there. Even if, at the moment, most of us can’t quite see it.

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