The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing is this year, and it’s worth recalling the memo that then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson wrote to President John F. Kennedy: “If we do not make the strong effort now, the time will soon be reached when the margin of control over space and over men’s minds through space accomplishments will have swung so far on the Russian side that we will not be able to catch up, let alone assume leadership.”
That sense of urgency has shifted over the decades from government to the private sector, where billionaires like Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, among others, are displaying profound enthusiasm in regard to the notion of exploiting space. Their interest appears to go well beyond space tourism for the thrill-seeking one-percenters, even though that’s what gets most of the media attention. As Cathal O’Connell reports for Cosmos Magazine, “Already companies are sending up 3D printers to produce replacement tools in space. Next we could see orbiting factories making products for sale on Earth or automated robots constructing satellites the size of a football field.”
If this all seems as exotic as those old 1930s “Flash Gordon” films did to the audiences of the day, recall that the experience of the Apollo 11 moon landing showed that reality has a way of catching up quickly to Hollywood fantasy (it also shows that when sufficient government resources are harnessed to a higher common purpose, good results can happen surprisingly quickly and efficiently). Once the likes of Bezos, Branson, Musk, and others find a way to economically hoist heavy machinery into space (and it is becoming more economic), permanent “off-Earth” manufacturing could become a reality. But this raises an interesting issue: who chooses the technological alternatives that set out our future? Should this decision solely be left in the domain of the private sector? Should space be privatized in this matter? What about NASA? Consider the future: Forget about the threat of moving a Midwestern plant from, say, Ohio, to Mexico or China. Next time, it could be a robot-filled factory in space that takes your job.
To be clear, nobody is suggesting a return to medieval-style craft guilds. At the same time, it is worth noting certain salient aspects about technology: rather than acting in the service of mankind, technology has often been used in a way that creates a momentum of its own that establishes limits or controls what becomes socially possible. It is wrapped in an aura of linear progress and scientific inevitability, conveniently ignoring that its benefits are often skewed most heavily to the power brokers who initiate and champion its use. This is a principle danger of subcontracting space to billionaire plutocrats, whose ambitions and interests might be inconsistent with society’s broader public purpose. This is to say nothing of the increasing de-skilling of labor that could follow, if they are not integrated into this process somehow.
As the Wall Street Journal’s Greg Ip notes, the government-sponsored race to the moon spurred considerable “advances in computers, miniaturization and software, and found its way into scratch-resistant lenses, heat-reflective emergency blankets and cordless appliances,” all of which had tremendous benefits for society as a whole. But today, the government has largely lost its “moonshot mindset” and space, in turn, has increasingly become the focus of the oligarch class, seeking to enhance profit opportunities as well as exploiting the increasing trend of displacing human labor with machines. This is despite the fact that Professor Seymour Melman’s own research illustrated that if you give workers decision-making power on the shop floor, productivity tends to increase substantially.
Without a doubt, there are many benefits to be derived from the work being done in the cosmos. For example, the microgravity conditions pertaining in space are considered ideal for developing materials, such as protein and virus crystals, observes Sarah Lewin, in a piece discussing the incipient development of “off-Earth manufacturing.” The insights developed by these crystals could enhance drug research and provide useful new therapies and medical treatments for infections and diseases (such as heart disease and organ transplants). Space also enhances the scope for producing high-tech materials, whose production is otherwise adversely affected by the Earth’s gravity, one example being a “fiber-optic cable called ZBLAN, … [which, w]hen manufactured in microgravity… is less likely to develop tiny crystals that increase signal loss. When built without those flaws, the cable can be orders of magnitude better at transmitting light over long distances, such as for telecommunications, lasers and high-speed internet,” according to Lewin.
We shouldn’t be oblivious to the considerable human costs associated with work in the government’s space program—“Microgravity sets our fluids wandering and weakens muscles, radiation tears through DNA and the harsh vacuum outside is an ever-present threat” (to quote Lewin), to say nothing of the risk of death itself—which are mitigated considerably when you can do things with machines alone. At the same time, left unchallenged or unmonitored, these billionaires could use space to quietly initiate further radical changes to our social structures.
It starts with ownership models. There’s an interesting paradox of futuristic 24th-century economic visions in space being built on the 12-to-13th–century ownership models that make up Silicon Valley. Wealth sharing ownership models should be conceived as part of the futuristic vision if we don’t want to be saddled with human wealth disparities reaching factors of 12 or 15 zeros. Ideally, NASA (or some other space agency) should take a leading national developmental role in the production of goods in space, and then subcontract to manufacturers to do the actual production processes, rather than the other way around.
Of course, if the government does ultimately decide that space privatization is not a great thing, no doubt Silicon Valley and its market fundamentalist champions will trot out the line about the inefficient government fighting “technological inevitability”—a typical playbook from the Silicon Valley oligarchs (i.e., you can’t fight technological progress, so let’s just set up something like a Universal Basic Income—UBI—that acts like a painkiller, but masks the symptoms of economic injustice and fails to address the underlying causes of exploitation and inequality). That’s one major risk of “off-Earth” production when it becomes a plaything of the rich alone. That’s to say nothing of the fact that the billionaire class is already benefiting from a long series of government-funded innovations undertaken in the past, as Professor Marianna Mazzucato has illustrated in her work, “The Entrepreneurial State.”
One of which was the government-led (and funded) space program: at its funding peak, the lunar space program employed over 400,000 Americans. The management, national commitment and personal motivation of the participants were just as important as the technology itself in terms of ensuring the program’s success. It’s hard to see that sort of coalescing of interests in the absence of an overriding government stake when it comes to the production of manufactured goods in an environment outside a planetary atmosphere.
There is another unhealthy aspect to uncritically acceding to a paradigm in which supposedly superhuman entrepreneurs are selflessly taking up the baton from a tapped-out public sector. It becomes self-serving for the billionaires, and implicitly justifies and entrenches the economic status quo. As journalist Amanda Schaffer has argued: “If tech leaders are seen primarily as singular, lone achievers, it is easier for them to extract disproportionate wealth. It is also harder to get their companies to accept that they should return some of their profits to agencies like NASA and the National Science Foundation through higher taxes or simply less tax dodging.” That self-entitlement also manifests itself in other ways. Just look at the way that Elon Musk treats his own employees to get a better sense of this. Or Jeff Bezos’s labor practices at Amazon.com.
It’s undoubted that orbital manufacturing will yield innovations in technology, medicine and material science in the next few decades. But we should recall that technology doesn’t simply have an autonomous momentum and direction that inexorably leads to social progress. Likewise, it bears recalling (as Professor Seymour Melman once observed) that technology “is applied in accordance with specific social criteria wielded by those with economic decision power in the society.” Melman’s implicit argument is that technology can be used to enhance worker control or to create more yet alienation. The government, therefore, shouldn’t be reduced to the role of passive minority shareholder collecting dividends or royalties from a privately run space enterprise. That’s the old market fundamentalist model that has failed pretty badly on this planet, let alone replicating it in space. So before we get too wrapped up in all of the exciting new goodies that Jeff Bezos and his fellow space enthusiasts can create for us, let’s also ensure that this move to “the final frontier” doesn’t simply become a new form of technological control and enslavement, in which the benefits continue to be distributed in a profoundly illiberal direction as they are here on planet Earth.