It’s not nice to tread on people’s dreams.
“Make no little plans,” the legendary Chicago architect Daniel Burnham is said to have jotted down somewhere, though the exact provenance of the saying remains undetermined.
“They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.
“Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”
So this isn’t the place to disparage the literally soaring ambitions of Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. More power to them if these space entrepreneurs can significantly improve life on Earth — as they say they will — by scaling up the nascent industry of space tourism.
It is simply difficult to take this trio’s mission at face value, which this column will attempt to do.
First, let’s give the naysayers their due. Yes, the extraterrestrial ambitions of these masters of the universe with mid-life issues does sort of scream “vanity project.”
(OK, Branson is 70. But 70 is the new 50.)
And as things stand, the names Branson (Virgin Atlantic), Bezos (Amazon.com Inc.) and Musk (Tesla Inc.) will appear in small type in the book of knowledge.
The trio has accumulated massive wealth. But that’s been done before, and to greater degree, by many others in the annals of humanity.
History will record that Branson, Bezos and Musk were pioneers in discount airlines, online retailing, and electric vehicles, respectively.
But they did not invent those things. Nor have they created substantively profitable enterprises from them, which is to say viable in the long term.
Still, if these space cowboys could create the ultimate exit plan that would enable millions of Earthlings to relocate — just for the exhilaration of it or ahead of another catastrophic meteor strike — that would be truly something.
That’s not quite what this trio has in mind, alas. They are not astronauts but “astropreneurs,” a tag given to them long ago. They each expect to amass new fortunes from their space ventures.
Which is a problem. Their chances of doing so are as remote as, well, Pluto.
The experts most bullish about the fledgling space-tourism industry — and they are bullish indeed — see its revenues rocketing to as much as $ 8 billion by 2030. (All figures in U.S. dollars.)
A handsome sum, to be sure. It’s within shouting distance of the $ 11 billion that Americans now spend each year on carpets and area rugs.
And that’s revenue, not profits. Bezos will have to reap profits of about $ 5 billion from his Blue Origin space venture just to recover the money he has already pumped into it.
There’s no doubting these space cadets’ derring-do, confronted as they are with the daunting economics of space tourism.
After all, the history of commercial aviation is about using technology to drive down the cost of flight.
But passenger fares for Musk’s planned Virgin Galactic flights are forecast to rise from $ 313,000 in 2023 to $ 405,000 in 2030.
Skeptics say that deep-pocketed prospective space travellers are thin on the ground, so to speak. But the Bloomberg Billionaires Index has 500 entries. So that’s a start.
And this is outer space, the last frontier, which has beckoned us forever.
Well, it’s near-space at least.
Branson’s flight July 14 took his spacecraft 92 km above the Earth’s surface. The Moon is about 384,000 km away from Earth. (That’s a ballpark estimate subject to wide variation.)
At least Branson has made a start, which posterity tends to look favourably upon.
Mars, where Bezos plans to build human colonies in space pods, is 377 million km away. So obviously the Amazon founder has his work cut out for him.
Still, for a newbie industry, commercial space travel is quite well established. We know this because it already has its own lobby, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF). And that lobby is already more powerful than the U.S. Government.
Despite opposition from several quarters, the CSF has been successful in its special pleading with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and with Congress that it’s much too early to certify the airworthiness of commercial spacecraft or the competence of pilots.
The budding commercial space industry deserves the “learning period” — legi-speak for regulatory laxity — that Congress has granted it until 2023.
The CSF and its Republican allies argue that robust regulatory safeguards in this newish sector would weaken America’s technological prowess.
That is hardly the first time Americans have been asked to put their country ahead of niceties — niceties such as being quite sure, in this case, that your pilot knows how to fly this thing.
Just to confuse matters, Branson, Bezos, and Musk insist that their profit motive is twinned with a sincere desire to save Planet Earth.
Bezos perhaps speaks best for the trio on this. Researchers, he notes, “have sent robotic probes to every planet in the solar system (and) this is the good one,” he says, meaning Earth. “So, we have to preserve this planet.”
For these tycoons with a total net worth of roughly $ 400 billion, there are options for saving the planet other than firing projectiles into space. And the beautiful part is they would see immediate results.
With $ 400 billion (U.S.), they could pick up the $ 8.6-billion tab for the shortfall of 1.7 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses that the COVAX consortium wants to deliver to more than 90 lower-income economies by early 2022.
In addition, they could build an affordable housing unit for each of America’s estimated 500,000 homeless people.
That still leaves about $ 135 billion, the cost of the original Marshall Plan in today’s dollars, to roll out domestic Marshall Plans in, say, East St. Louis and South Los Angeles, formerly South Central.
Finally, they could also cut a cheque for $ 300,000 to each of America’s approximately 1,500 food banks and food pantries (a.k.a. soup kitchens).
And with the roughly $ 6 billion remaining, Branson, Bezos and Musk would still be able to call themselves billionaires. Twice over, in fact.
It can be annoying to be told how to spend your money. It can also be a challenge for your progeny if you die rich — and thus disgraced, as philanthropist Andrew Carnegie had it.
For sure, Bezos might prefer that his Wikipedia entry didn’t include the current petition on Change.org demanding that Bezos not be allowed to return to Earth after his July 20 launch.
At this writing, a considerable number of people want Bezos to take a one-way trip to Outer Palookaville.
Probably the more than 160,000 signatories to that petition would think again if Branson, Bezos, and Musk gave themselves a good head-shake about their plans for saving humanity.