Nationalize Space!

Space, many believe, is the final frontier… 

And like all frontiers, there’s a bunch of white men preparing to break free from their home world to colonize it for their own personal benefit. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson among others, have all showed off their conspicuous consumption by seizing upon space exploration as the signifier of the truly wealthy. Because if too many people are becoming billionaires, how do you show off that you’re an even richer billionaire? Well, you go to space. Space is for rich people. 

In the past decade, its been private space companies that have gotten the majority of the headlines, with flashy branding, like sending a hideous electric roadster into orbit, online fans rabid to defend these self-fashioned iconoclasts, and ridiculous and also once again, hideous renderings of luxury space colonization. 

In a time of relentless austerity for the national space program, these billionaires have helped foreclose on the dream of space exploration for the public good, and instead somehow packaged it as a privilege. So how much of space exploration was really meant for the public anyway? And what will it take to reclaim the airless void for the people? 

This podcast is made of star-stuff, and we’re about to take a journey into the universe of public space exploration… 

Hi, I’m Max Rivlin-Nadler. And this is Nationalize This! a podcast about public ownership, democratic control, and the successes and failures of nationalization projects. This week’s episode: Space. 

The era before the commercialization of space was never, ever one solely undertaken by the government — there were numerous weapons manufacturers designing and working on various components, although it certainly was all undertaken by public funding… much like most of the current private ventures, but we’ll get there shortly.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or as we all know it, NASA, was born out of the Department of Defense. Nazi scientists helped give Americans a functional rocket to outer space, and in return, we, umm forgot about all that Nazi stuff they did. Fifty years ago last month, we landed on the moon, almost entirely to prove to the Russians that we could, and then we spent a few decades sending probes out of the solar system with extremely cool golden records attached to them, successfully and unsuccessfully landing rovers on other planets, successfully and unsuccessfully sending shuttles into low-earth orbit, and maintaining a beautiful international space station, where scientists and astronauts from across the globe could share their work and gain perspective outside of the oppressive confines of gravity and nationalism. 

It was during that time that NASA’s budget began to nosedive,all the way down to its lowest percentage of the federal budget ever, at less than half a percent. Public perception, marred by the false-promises of the shuttle program, as well as the Challenger disaster, began to shift against the agency as being costly and ineffective. Under Reagan, it was instructed to “seek and encourage to the maximum extent possible the fullest commercial use of space activities.”

At the same time, NASA was providing to the public some truly awesome and groundbreaking research on our own planet and elsewhere, now almost entirely accessible by the public the world over. NASA was also providing far more opportunities to female scientists than almost every other science institutions, at a time when women were seeing little to no job growth in STEM jobs. While space start-ups began coalescing around the idea that NASA was a slow-moving behemoth that needed to be “disrupted” and refocused on flashy projects like deep space travel, the agency had provided countless pathways into science for people of all backgrounds. Perhaps most importantly, as an agency with an explicitly outward-facing mission, it inspired young people to go into science, and, if they were lucky, spend a few years on an NASA-funded study that results in a paper with the name “Adaptive changes in the vestibular system of land snail to a 30-day spaceflight and readaptation on return to Earth.” That’s available for free, I’ll post the link on the website… Long story short — it takes the snails a little while to readapt to earth’s gravity, but then they’re totally fine. That was a NASA-funded study where Russian scientists teamed up with American scientists, by the way. 

But now, space flight and research are no longer the sole territory of the socliastic space program known as NASA, but more often associated with the Musk’s, Bezos’s, and Branson’s, here to sell humanity on its only chance for survival — traveling to deep space because some strange system of financial accumulation and environmental degradation has somehow rendered our own home planet increasingly uninhabitable. We could solve that problem… but would there be cool rocket ships then? Probably not!

And it’s not as if NASA isn’t paying attention to the shine that the billionaires are bringing to personal space flight. Since the rise of private space companies promising to bring oligarchy to the furthest parts of the universe, NASA has reoriented itself around a streamlined approach to human spaceflight, targeting the moon and mars, even as neither would have as much scientific value as figuring out if the universe is a real thing, how old it is, and what lies even further beyond just our closest neighbors. 

Increasingly, it’s becoming clear that the privatization of space flight is a result of the marked inequality on earth. With more than enough money to survive the ecological apocalypse here on earth, billionaires are investing it in space because they’re simply out of ideas and space is, y’know,cool. 

Here’s Jeff Bezos in a 2018 interview: 

With NASA’s stifling bureaucracy limiting human spaceflight (which is costly, heavy, and because of that, deeply polluting) to those deemed essential — like the few scientists who spend their entire lives preparing for the moment they’re in space — venture capitalists are trying to open up one more market — the ultimate market, as it were — space. 

But here’s the dirty secret of private-public partnerships when it comes to space travel. The government has always funded the bulk of the work, from Boeing and Raytheon back in the Apollo days, to SpaceX today. It’s the government that has underwritten and kept these private companies afloat, even as the venture capitalists of today demand a break from the supposed bureaucracy that has kept humanity earth-bound. SpaceX has gotten at least $5.5 billion from the government. Here’s a good time to remind you that Amazon paid zero federal income tax in 2018, so we’re indirectly funding Bezos’s bored use of his money as well. 

At the same time, NASA’s science-driven missions have been hits. Since the success of Skylab, which became the site of almost 300 scientific experiments, (until it famously fell out of orbit in 1979), you’ve had the Vikings, the Voyagers (which have left the dang solar system and entered intersetellar space), and the Hubble Space Telescope, all done during the time period that other people in the space community saw NASA as being stagnant.

The truth is, humanity probably shouldn’t go too far into space. We’ve made enough of a mess down here. Whatever can help us understand the universe to better dig ourselves out of the hole we’ve made seems to be the priority for many at NASA, but not in the commercial space industry. Instead, they want to go to mars, man. 

Shalina Chatlani is a reporter for KPBS in San Diego, where I am also a reporter, but we should make completely clear that KPBS in no way sanctions, endorses, or support this humble, independent podcast. She’s a science and technology reporter at KPBS. She has a degree in science technology and international affairs from Georgetown so you know she’s fancy. Has a master’s degree in science communication. Her work has appeared in Education Dive, Nashville Public Radio, The Space Review, Quest, and she has a chapter forthcoming in a book about digital democracy. Her master’s thesis was about the impact of start-ups and what has become known as NewSpace on NASA, and how this has distracted the public and NASA from its original socialistic mission. Shalina, welcome to the pod.