Now a new generation of rockets, engineers, scientists and explorers are ready to assault the sky. We should hardly be surprised that wealthy people are at the forefront. Space might be the new playground for the rich, like Maui and Aspen have become. Of course, he who pays the piper invariably picks the tune. Do we want the agenda for science — for humanity — to be set by a club of rich, white men? (Yes, so far they have all been white men.)
All their money and enthusiasm have fueled innovation and excitement, as well as jobs for scientists and engineers. And when things go wrong, as they did in early September, when the private company Firefly’s new Alpha rocket blew up on its first launch, it will be the shareholders and venture capitalists, not taxpayers, who must foot the bill.
Historically the space program has served as a kind of loss leader, drawing people into science who wind up creating new semiconductor chips or inventing new ways to image the brain. These are things that both political parties say they want.
It is fitting that much of the money backing this renaissance was made in the tech sector, by people who benefited from a tidal wave of government-sponsored research during the 1950s and ’60s, especially in defense and aerospace.
There’s also the matter of what they’ll find out there. We might encounter life that is more alien than even science-fiction writers have imagined, or territory desolate beyond belief, or merely the unsettling beauty of pitiless nature. Or perhaps a biochemical clue to our own beginnings.
Who knows if Elon Musk will eventually die on Mars. But someday, someone will probably enter history as the first person to perish on the Red Planet. In Arthur C. Clarke’s story “Transit of Earth,” an astronaut is marooned on Mars and wanders into the desert to die, while listening to classical music, so that his microbes might give sustenance to whatever can use them in the new world. Houston, Pilobolus will have landed.