The Poor People Look Even Smaller From Up Here

A satellite view of earth.This view from space is a major selling point for space tourism companies. Image via Pixabay.

The potential to explore space is a particularly fascinating aspect of the new age. As new technology allows us to understand the extent of our ever-expanding universe in ways previously unheard of, the intricacies of what expansion off of our planet really looks like are becoming much more immediately pressing an issue than ever expected. Historically, space exploration has solely been in the hands of taxpayer-funded government agencies like NASA. These efforts, not having to answer back to private investors, were largely free of the need to focus on profit above discovery. However, as major corporations start to dig their hands into the world of space exploration, we are rapidly seeing the worrying influence of private interests as billionaires such as Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk have entered into a private space race. In the past few months, Richard Branson and subsequently Jeff Bezos (not to be one-upped) have taken their own personal joyrides past our atmosphere. Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s space tourism company, SpaceX, has launched its high-end clientel’s first forays into outer space. The modern space age looks to be beginning, and presently, it’s at the mercy of private interests. 

SpaceX is only the first of what will no doubt become a highly lucrative industry as the expanses of the solar system become the most exotic status-symbol of a vacation destination for those who can afford the expensive ticket. The $450,000 plus cost of a flight with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic hasn’t been a deterrent to the most high-profile in our society: A-list celebrities including Rihanna, Leonardo DiCaprio, Katy Perry and Brad Pitt have already publicly booked trips with the space tourism company. 

It’s easy to dismiss these efforts as the typical frivolous antics of the wealthy, but this sudden interest in space from the corporate elite may have a more politically insidious foundation. As a disillusioned working class shows increasingly negative attitudes toward the ruling class and capitalism, ventures like Mars development in some ways represent the perfect way out for these ultra-wealthy CEOs. Amidst mounting disdain for billionaires’ inaction on crucial issues, initiatives like Elon Musk’s goal to make Mars livable for a million people by 2050 present the facade of some sort of progressivism, the impression of an attempt to address the issues facing the world, while additionally creating potentially massive profits and providing justification for neglecting social programs back on earth. The openly anti-union Tesla CEO Elon Musk may have propositions for escaping climate change, but the working class is clearly not on his mind. The truth is that putting a million people on Mars simply will not prevent the tragedies of the encroaching climate crisis. There’s little overlap between the affluent group who might be able to afford the trip to Mars and the impoverished citizens of the Global South who will inevitably be hit the hardest. Musk’s strange vision of this small fraction of the population finding refuge on another planet in thirty years is too little, too late. Musk might think himself a radical, but neglects the less flashy but far more pragmatic environmental protections he could be investing even a fraction of his staggering $218 billion net worth into. 

Space exploration is not an inherently bad pursuit. There’s the argument to be made that this kind of advancement is key to the advancement of humanity as a whole, and innovation is no doubt a noble and important pursuit. Additionally, space tourism does have a low environmental impact, even compared to regular international tourism. The problem here has nothing to do with the science: it’s with the way the ultra-rich have been able to seize control of this new frontier. It’s with Jeff Bezos waxing poetic in a prepared statement following his field trip to The Kármán Line about what it taught him about the value of humanity, all while maintaining his anti-union policies and brutal warehouse working conditions. Our solar system deserves better than becoming just another way for the bourgeoisie to propagandize. 

It’s important to understand the simultaneously unique and deeply familiar context of this trend. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, those on the lower end of the economic scale were hit the hardest, both in terms of COVID deaths and economic impacts. According to a Human Rights Watch investigation, 57% of households making fewer than 35,000 dollars a year experienced job or income loss, and the lower class is struggling most to bounce back from COVID-19 related setbacks. However, this struggle never reached the wealthy. In fact, U.S. billionaires got 1.2 trillion dollars richer during the pandemic. While the majority of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, Jeff Bezos’s net worth rose $86 billion over the course of the health crisis. And, of course, where will these CEOs funnel their excessive, egregious, impossible-to-even-fully-understand-the-scope-of wealth? Not to taxes, considering that despite its posted yearly income of 11 billion dollars in 2018 Amazon paid a whopping 0 dollars in federal taxes that year, and that the company threatened to withdraw from its substantial role in Seattle’s economy when the city— whose lower class has been ravaged by tech-industry fueled gentrification— proposed a bill that would require companies like Amazon to pay a tax to the local homeless population. Amazon’s resistance killed the bill on the floor, and with the White House’s own estimation of the average federal income tax paid by billionaires being just 8.2%, this issue stretches far beyond any one entity. Instead, these hoards of wealth are being directed toward white male billionaires’ sci-fi ego projects, a pissing contest of money and technology in petty turf wars over who can colonize Mars first while the peasants are left to toil on the ground. While the majority of the population struggles to survive, the wealthy have already turned their eyes to the stars, and while they aren’t willing to help us, they might be willing to leave us behind. 

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