Turning Against Progress

Today a very silly video from Vice News has been making the rounds on social media, titled “Rich People Are Going To Colonize Mars Without You”

Firstly, it gets a couple of basic facts wrong:

  1. The idea that NASA administrator Thomas Paine said he didn’t want to launch Apollo 11 after being moved by Ralph Abernathy’s words is a lie. What he said, according to NASA’s own history, was “if we could solve the problems of poverty by not pushing the button to launch men to the moon tomorrow, then we would not push that button”. Which is very different. Paine was correctly pointing out that the tiny portion of Federal money spent on Apollo wouldn’t help with poverty, and the fact poverty stubbornly remained after NASA’s budget was gutted shows that.
  2. SpaceX isn’t paid for by NASA. It has some contracts with NASA, but also has plenty of commercial customers. Notice the cut between the claim that SpaceX gets money from the US government without the oversight (they do in fact have oversight) to a protest against SpaceX launching a Turkish satellite as an example of their lack of accountability to taxpayers – when US taxpayers were not involved in that contract at all. Development of Starship, the vehicle they will use to send humans to Mars, is almost entirely being paid for by SpaceX themselves. Clearly the videos creators wished to seed the idea that SpaceX is merely expropriating US taxpayer money to build a Mars colony, which is not true.
  3. The Outer Space treaty does not say that ‘space belongs to all of us’ and is not a ‘vow to not treat outer space in any way remotely similar to how the most powerful have treated Earth for the past 500 years’. You can read the treaty here to see for yourself. The meat of the Outer Space Treaty says you can’t interfere with other peoples spacecraft and you can’t station or test nuclear weapons in space, but a few people have seized on tiny parts of the treaty and blown them up into some kind of imagined manifesto for space communism.

But more damning than them simply not knowing what they are talking about, is the amoral appeal to envy that motivates the video in the first place. The video tells you that you aren’t going to be able to go, so you should be opposed to anybody else going. It celebrates activists turning the popular mood against NASA, and thus getting the Apollo program cancelled, as some kind of great victory for justice. It is hard to see the people behind this as anything other than gleeful wreckers of civilisation.

The envy is also unfounded; what makes you think only the rich will go? The stated aim of SpaceX is to get the price down as low as they possibly can. They have mooted $250,000 dollars before as a target price, which is round about the average cost of a US house. The idea being that you would sell up everything on Earth before migrating to Mars. Obviously if you have $250,000 after selling up you are fairly rich by global standards, but not that rich by American standards. You would not be one of the 1% so much as one of the 30% or so.

Still, this would leave a lot of people who could not afford to go at that price. This does not mean, as the video claims, they would be deliberately ‘shut out’ of Mars. This supposed ‘gated community’ exists only in the imagination of the video’s narrator. Elon Musk wants to build a city of a million people on Mars in his lifetime, so if SpaceX could make the ticket ten times cheaper, or one hundred times, they surely would. At the end of the day, launching a giant rocket into space, refueling it with tankers launched on other giant rockets, and sending it to Mars requires a substantial amount of resources that have to be paid for somehow.

In the long run, prices even lower than the current SpaceX estimate may well be possible. As I mentioned in a previous post, and as Elon Musk has in the past alluded to, Starship could in economy class configuration carry around 1000 people to Earth orbit. At $1-5 million per launch this would be $1000-$5000 per ticket. Getting from the surface of Earth to a low orbit at an altitude of a few hundred kilometres is the majority of the work of getting to Mars. If all the components apart from the passengers and their hand luggage could remain in space rather than be launched from Earth – specifically, the supplies, cabins and propellant for the interplanetary trip – then the cost to go to Mars could be a lot closer to the economy price ticket to low Earth orbit than the current SpaceX target of $250,000. For this to happen would require substantial development of industries in space. There will be a ‘jet set’ age when it is out of reach of many people to travel to Mars, before it can become available to the masses.

The people behind this Vice News video, and those of a similar mindset, don’t care about any of that. They seem just to want to smash something. At the end they all but admit that they don’t want to see any serious material achievements in space that they aren’t involved in, which sounds to me like they believe the actual universe should revolve around them.

Also, Gil Scott-Heron is massively overrated.

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