Last Friday, in the latest volley in the Billionaire Space Race, Richard Branson announced that he'll be flying to low Earth orbit on July 11, nine days before Jeff Bezos' planned visit. While some plutocrat stans cheered for their chosen corporate overlord, many on Twitter responded with renewed outrage that not one but three billionaires have managed to hoard enough wealth to start their own personal space programs. The news landed particularly viciously after a week in which hundreds of people died from a record-shattering heat dome in Canada and the Pacific Northwest and the ocean caught on fire.
What caught me by surprise was the number of folks who seem to believe that Musk, Bezos and Branson are trying to "escape" the ravages of climate change for a life in space — and might even succeed in doing so. The notion that the rich will live comfortably high above the Earth while the planet becomes an uninhabitable wasteland has been popularized by movies like "Elysium" and "WALL-E." The New York Times fueled this fantasy back in 2018 with a story about Axiom's proposed luxury space hotel, under the headline "The Rich are Planning to Leave this Wretched Planet."
But as a scifi writer and the spouse of a NASA flight controller, let me assure you that the rich escaping the earth for a space utopia is only a trope in fiction — at least in our lifetimes.
The most comfortable living situation we've ever devised above Earth's orbit is on the International Space Station. The ISS is an incredible feat of engineering — one that the combined space agencies of the U.S., Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada have been working on for 23 years now. But life on the ISS is anything but luxurious.
Around half a dozen astronauts live up there at any given time, bouncing around a narrow tube with roommates they didn't choose and who can't properly bathe for months on end. The wifi is slow. The food is not Michelin starred, to say the least. Their sleeping situation is akin to a floating coffin. And pooping involves a complicated procedure in a port-o-potty where the door is a plastic curtain and everything floats.
Astronauts' time is micromanaged by a team of experts on the ground. Unlike future space-tourists' imagined itineraries, much of their time is spent working on actual science, but a great deal is dedicated to mere survival as well. Space-dwellers must exercise at least two hours a day to keep their bones from turning to goo. They spend a ton of time studying systems and conducting repairs on equipment that frequently breaks because space wants to kill you. Outside the space station, there are micro-meteoroid strikes, extreme temperature fluctuations, the cold welding of metal parts that occurs in a vacuum, and atomic oxygen/ultraviolet degradation. Inside, things frequently break from age and constant use — fans, exercise equipment, and, tragically, the toilets.
The ISS crew is only able to survive up there at all because multiple countries employ thousands of brilliant, highly-trained engineers and doctors and astrophysicists and computer experts whose full-time job is keeping them alive and the ISS functioning. When something does break, these teams scramble to devise fixes. And those fixes — lord, are they tedious.
I used to think my spouse's job was so glamorous, all hanging out with astronauts in Mission Control. But during this pandemic year, he's mostly worked from home, and I have glimpsed the schematics and overheard bits of meetings. It's like an IKEA furniture assembly manual fell in love with a PhD-level math textbook — that level of tediousness.
Every time some critical system breaks outside the station, astronauts have to study these schematics and procedures for hours to learn how to repair the broken thing. Then the spacewalks themselves entail five to eight hours in a bulky suit, working with stiff gloves, with someone in your ear all, "Drive bolt 7A into dock 31X." That's five to eight hours of hard, tedious labor that often leaves super-fit astronauts trembling with muscle fatigue. Can you imagine Richard Branson enjoying that? I cannot.
Scott Kelly was the first U.S. astronaut to spend a consecutive year in space on one mission. As soon as he got home, he retired from NASA and got to work on his memoir, aptly named "Endurance." He'd spent his adult life preparing to be an astronaut, and still he found it physically and psychologically grueling to be up there for just one year. "During my time in orbit, I lost bone mass, my muscles atrophied, and my blood redistributed itself in my body, which strained my heart," he wrote. "Every day, I was exposed to ten times the radiation of a person on Earth, which will increase my risk of a fatal cancer for the rest of my life."
So rest assured, Bezos and Branson will not be sipping champagne next to their space-pool on Low-Earth Mar-a-Lago. Even if Axiom gets their space hotel built, it's going to be cramped and dangerous, and when the toilet breaks, someone's going to have to clean up the floating shit. For all their wealth, billionaires do not have the power to make space a more comfortable place to be than Earth. I can't tell if they grasp that or not. Musk doesn't seem to when he says he wants to "die on Mars."
And what about Musk's dream of a colony on Mars, or at least the Moon? Those are astronomically less feasible. The farther away from Earth you're trying to sustain life in space, the harder it gets. And while they have the benefit of gravity, the surface of the Moon and Mars are covered with a powdery regolith that gums up mechanisms. NASA is currently working on sending astronauts to live on the Moon as part of the Artemis mission. They've been working on Artemis plans for years and will continue to plan for years more before sending the first crew to sleep on the Moon — for a week or two, max. No, there will be no Moon-a-Lago, let alone a Mars-a-Lago, in our lifetimes.
So despite Musk's lofty claims of making humanity "a multi-planetary species," that's way, way beyond the realm of current technical possibility. And his claim is especially absurd, considering that in order to generate the wealth that sustains billionaires like Musk, we're rapidly destroying the one planet we can live on — Earth. If we don't reverse the environmental and societal degradation caused by global capitalism, the ISS may turn out to be the pinnacle of human space exploration.
So when you understand the science, it becomes clear that the "billionaire space race" is just that—nothing more than a pissing contest between egotistical robber barons. Branson and Bezos aren't investing their money to forward science or expand the bounds of human possibility. They're doing it to be the first rich guy to bounce around uselessly up there, as opposed to NASA astronauts who, again, do science. And after they bounce around uselessly, they're hoping to swindle more of their obscenely rich friends into doing the same.
The pointlessness of it all is especially despicable when you understand that space tourism is funded with the hoarded wealth of billions of workers who are struggling to survive here on Earth. The space tourism industry will be built with the profits off supply chains that work people to death-by-exhaustion, literally enslave people, and are rapidly destroying the future habitability of our planet.
That's a pretty bleak dystopia. We should really consider taking our wealth back from billionaires before they build it.
But if we fail, join me in enjoying the schadenfreude. Space tourism will inevitably suck. Our billionaires won't find anything up there but a whole lot of time to sit with the gaping void in their hearts, which space certainly won't fill, while forcibly holding their asscheeks to a suctioning toilet seat, because they're constipated as hell from astronaut food.
The world is burning, and billionaires are arguably the people most responsible. But at least they will not be able to escape to some other, better place. They will live and die (alone, like all of us) on this beautiful, precious, one-in-a-gazillion planet.