Look, before we even get started I want you to know I’m not defending any of these billionaires as people, with the possible exception of Elon Musk, who I believe is a genuinely good person. That said, I think it’s a good thing these rich guys are going to space, and here’s why.
Wright or Wrong
In 1903 the Wright brothers proved that humans can fly, provided they do so in an airplane. In the 118 years since that first flight, it is apparent that flying turned out to be a really good thing. Sure, the first true commercial flight didn’t take place until 1914 and the first dynamic application of flying was fighter plans in World War I, but honestly can anyone really say with a straight face that flight is a bad thing?
Flight has allowed people to go from New York City to Los Angeles in about six hours. In the days of covered wagons, that trip would have likely taken around five and a half months! It has allowed people who would have died to make it to emergency medical care in time. It has allowed more people to travel the globe much quicker and more safely than ever before. Perhaps most importantly, it has allowed the economy to become more global by allowing countries to trade perishable goods that, in the years before 1903, would have spoiled in the cargo hold of a ship. People are better because the airplane was invented.
But who could have predicted that in 1903? Possibly the Wright brothers themselves, and maybe a few of the other pioneers of flight, but certainly not most people. In fact it really wasn’t until the 1950s that commercial travel became comfortable enough and affordable enough to truly become a feasible method of travel in for most Americans. And for cargo, trains and trucks remained the preferred methods for transporting goods for decades after the plane was invented.
You get the picture. Planes have become so commonplace and done so much good for the world. The world is a smaller place now, the global economy is more robust than it’s ever been, and I believe we can all agree that it is an objective truth that airplanes have improved life on earth.
Of course, some people with vividly colored hair and tweeting about the evils of capitalism on their iPhones using Starbucks WiFi will probably think “oh, but the Wright brothers could have used all the money they spent on flights to help people who really needed it like the homeless.” To that I say that the Wright brothers were not wealthy men when they first flew. They did, however, become immensely rich when their technology proved reliable, and after paying off their debts and building a family estate in Dayton, Ohio, the brothers did donate quite a bit of money to charitable causes.
In fact, two generations after the Wright brothers died their grandnephew used his portion of the family fortune to found the Wright Brothers Family Foundation, which not only serves the intellectual community by preserving facts about the history of flight, but also donates money to those in need. Sure, the Wright brothers’ personal giving may not have been very organized, but their family money is still around and is now used in a more defined way to help those who need it. In other words, flight even helped the poor and homeless in some way.
The Final Frontier
Okay, so I’m not actually going to call space the final frontier because it’s entirely possible there are scientific, geographic, mental, physical, and possibly even spiritual frontiers that we can’t even comprehend right now. But space is certainly the final frontier that those of us in the 21st century can imagine.
But the point is we don’t know exactly how beneficial commercial space flight will be. Maybe it speeds up shipping or human transport. Maybe it somehow manages to help the environment. Maybe it’s going to allow worldwide free WiFi or repair of the ozone or interstellar communication or advanced research on extraterrestrial life forms. Who knows?
What’s more is that these billionaires are still providing charity to people in need. Jeff Bezos made the single largest charitable donation of 2020, giving $10 billion to the Bezos Earth Fund, which was founded to help combat climate change, and an addition $2 billion to fight poverty and poor education in low-income communities. Elon Musk has given over $150 million away to charity, including $1 million to Feeding Texas (a food bank), $1.5 million for artificial intelligence research, an undisclosed amount to UNICEF to expand Internet access in developing countries, $20 million to help school districts in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, and even $5 million to Covid research. In addition to those tangible contributions, Musk has pledged a $100 million prize to anyone who can create a better way to combat climate change. And here’s the kicker: That $150 million in donations and $100 million pledged to the climate change “winner” was all given and pledged between January 1 and April 30 of this year.
And before you even say it, I realize that $150 million is not a ton of money when you consider that Musk is worth about $150 billion. But that’s just his worth as calculated by liquidity plus the value of his ownership stakes in his various companies. Just because CNN tells you Elon Musk is worth $150 billion doesn’t mean he could go to the bank and withdraw $150 billion in cash. In fact, Business Insider estimates that of Musk’s $150 billion fortune, about $130 billion of that is the value of his equity in SpaceX, Tesla, and his other companies. Bezos is rumored to keep about 5% of his fortune (or roughly $9.5 billion) in cash. I’m not saying anyone has to agree with these guys or think that $10 billion in cash is a small amount, but people do need to realize that the wealth these men have is overwhelmingly tied up in stock options and not just cash sitting in a bank account somewhere.
The point is this: It’s a good thing that these billionaires are going to space. And look, I realize that Jeff Bezos looks like a Bond Villain and Elon Musk has some serious Nikola-Tesla-meets-Richard-Branson vibes, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t do good in the world. I know for a guy like Bezos that $12 billion isn’t a huge donation, but I’m willing to bet it’s about $11,999,999,900 more than you’ve given to charity this year. But these guys are obviously smart, and they’re surrounding themselves with smart people, too. That means they believe that commercial space flight is good. And we should trust them, for now.
We don’t know how many applications commercial space flight will have. But then again how many people fully understood the potential benefits of air travel way back in 1903. It would be great to take a look 100 years into the future to see what’s come of commercial space flight. It’s a good thing to expand human knowledge. The more we know as a species, the more likely we are to ensure the continued survival of our species. I don’t know about y’all, but to me the continued survival of the human race sounds like a pretty good thing.
So let’s give these billionaires a chance. They’ll go out and spend the capital and take the risks and government can try to help people in need. One way or another the things that men like Bezos and Musk will learn will be beneficial to humankind. Let’s encourage it.