Finding the balance between scientific progress and commercial gain is proving to be increasingly difficult in the world of space travel, as more and more big-name companies enter the playing field.NASA HQ PHOTO (

News of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ recent rocket flight to the edge of space has launched interest in humans returning to the Moon, and sparked the subsequent bidding war between Bezos’ Blue Origin and Tesla magnate Elon Musk’s SpaceX companies for control of the mission. Although Bezos offered $2 billion to NASA to choose his company over Musk’s, SpaceX prevailed — winning the $2.9 billion contract. Their aim is to create the first commercial human lander, part of a reusable launch system and capable of transporting two US astronauts to the Moon’s surface; a manned test flight to the lunar orbit is planned for 2023. Earlier this month, Richard Branson also proved his importance in the ‘new space race’, travelling in the Virgin Galactic craft and becoming the first of the three to ride in his own company’s vehicle to the edge of space. The trio are now locked in competition to be the first to fully commercialise rocket travel, selling seats for a profit and kick-starting a new industry — space tourism. However, given that all are white male billionaires, providing them with this level of influence in public science could start a dangerous new chapter.

“The original space race was essentially a colonisation of the only land left to be claimed – the Moon”

The original space race was hardly apolitical: driven by Cold War tensions, it was essentially a colonisation of the only land left to be claimed – the Moon. Humans first set foot on the lunar surface on July 20th 1969, with Neil Armstrong’s famous step off the ladder. A further eleven men followed (unfortunately we are yet to see a woman walk on the Moon), with the final visit on 14th December 1972. After the US ‘won’ the space race, interest began to decline. Life support systems on-board spacecraft were costly and seen as an unnecessary expenditure, especially given NASA’s significant defunding; its portion of the federal budget has decreased tenfold between 1965 and today. Focus had shifted to the expensive and contentious Vietnam War, and along with the tragic events of the Challenger disaster and the close call of the Apollo 13 mission, public opinion of manned missions had shifted. Humanity was no longer striding confidently forward into the unknown.

A 2019 Guardian article highlighted the similarities between the conquest of the Antarctic and of the Moon: the initial race to plant their country’s flag in virgin ground spurred a flurry of activity. In Antarctica’s case, this was followed by a 50-year hiatus before explorers returned and established fully crewed research bases. Following this pattern, it seems we are just at the beginning of the next phase of lunar exploration. However, there is a crucial difference between these two examples: the Antarctic stations are funded and owned by specific countries, whereas the next stage of Moon colonisation will seemingly involve private companies working alongside national space organisations and funding their missions. The question that must be asked is whether it is ever acceptable for the very few richest people in the world to wield such power, even if it is for the advancement of science.

“Instead of fulfilling their childhood dreams to travel to the edge of space, these men could be bringing about the end of the pandemic using just their profits from the last 18 months”

The issue is further complicated because both Bezos and Musk have been accused of tax avoidance, allegedly paying minimal US federal income tax over the last two decades. Since NASA is funded by the federal budget, this money is from the same pot that would have gone towards government space exploration. Instead, Musk is offering it to NASA in exchange for a high level of control over the space programs, ultimately making him richer and increasing his sphere of influence. It will only serve to make the possibility of returning to fully government-controlled space travel ever more remote.


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It’s also essential not to consider this debate in a political vacuum. In 2019, the global wealth gap was such that the 26 richest people collectively owned as much as the poorest 50%. As shocking a statistic as this is, COVID-19 has only increased the divide. Oxfam recently reported that since the pandemic began, the ten richest men on the planet have actually gained a combined net $500 billion, which is more than enough to cover the cost of a Coronavirus vaccine for everyone on Earth. Instead of fulfilling their childhood dreams to travel to the edge of space, these men could be bringing about the end of the pandemic using just their profits from the last 18 months. One could even argue that it is their social responsibility to do so. Of course, we can’t stop all global scientific advancement during this time — nor should we. But it is impossible to ignore the fact that this money could be used to save so many lives — to produce and distribute vaccines to populations that are struggling to access them, or to fund hospitals and Coronavirus treatments. These billionaires are choosing to run away from our planet, chasing glory in space, rather than take responsibility as people with the means to help and fix what’s happening on Earth.