The other night I watched the launch of the NASA / Space X Dragon capsule on its Falcon 9 rocket, via a live feed provided by the BBC. The last few minutes of the countdown were gripping, even though there was little to see until the very end: hearing the various communications, seeing the white plumes of steam rippling out from the launch vehicle as it was filled with fuel, the spray of water across the camera as the sprinklers kicked in just before ignition, the view of the crew inside the capsule making final adjustments. It reminded me of the excitement of watching space shuttle launches in the 1980s, and of everyone in our class at primary school going outside to see the shuttle pass over Macclesfield, piggybacked on a jumbo jet on its way back from a mission.
Part of the tension was of course because of the risk – it was impossible not to think of the two space shuttle disasters as the engines fired up and the rocket surged up from the tower. Thankfully, all went well this time – a little counter in the corner of the screen showed the increasing speed of the spacecraft as it powered up into the sky and away from the Earth – over 7000km per hour when the first stage fell away.
All this was a world away from Covid 19 and our day to day concerns – something hopeful, a tiny part of the future that feels like progress rather than decay and collapse. A glimpse of Star Trek to provide a little solace against the looming existential threat of climate change. But, even in that moment of escapism, something troubled me. In the old days it was NASA; today the private firm, Space X is in the driving seat – the vanguard is capitalist not public. This whole thing was made possible (and could be abandoned) on the whim of a single multi billionaire.
Does the fact that this power is in the hands of one man matter? His vision and funds are doing something amazing; just like the vision and funds of the multi billionaire philanthropists driving global efforts on poverty and disease eradication. They’re using their wealth to do positive and imaginative things – surely the fulfilment of the most idealistic promises of the capitalist system?
The issue I have with this state of things is illustrated by something I heard about a couple of weeks ago. It was at the time people were being told to look out at the night sky to watch a string of lights streaking through the night sky – Space X satellites orbiting the Earth. The issue with reflected sunlight was going to be fixed, they said – it hadn’t been foreseen and the company were investigating how to prevent it, to make this orbiting hardware less intrusive. That was one thing – but then I read that the company plans to put tens of thousands of satellites in orbit. There may be a range of consequences – aside from anything else, my own worry (for myself and I imagine for many others) is the idea that that amazing, timeless, awe-inspiring view of the universe we can enjoy every clear night, the psychological escape of it, might be destroyed by thousands of tiny objects criss-crossing above us, separating us, trapping us beneath a sea of technology. What will the effect of that be on humanity? Or will the intrusion be so small that it will barely be noticeable, even with so many objects?
The fact is, I don’t know. Maybe ten thousand little satellites won’t make a big difference to the view. That’s not the point. The point is that, whether or not the satellites end up in orbit is ultimately the decision of one immensely wealthy and powerful individual. He might think carefully about the various risks and consequences of his actions and avoid doing anything harmful: Or he might think that all the risks and costs are a price worth paying and go ahead anyway. Given his funds, it’s his choice – if a government in one country stops him, he could just go to another where his money was welcomed. Just because we might not be concerned about his particular plans at the moment, does not alter the fact that this is problematic.
Other billionaires around the globe are following their own agendas, with effects beyond those that many nation states would be capable of causing. Without oversight or accountability, they are doing things that are good, bad, and indifferent. We might laud the good but what happens if they get something wrong? The scale of their operations means that mistakes could have huge implications – and even successes could have unforeseen results – and yet there may be no way to hold them to account or at least, no accountability that could balance the potential damage caused.
There is a link back to Covid 19 here: We are told that we must all go back to work or else the economic consequences will cause poverty, with an associated increase in mortality greater than that caused by the virus itself. However, if that happens it will be a choice, a choice made by the richest in our societies. If even half of their wealth was shared out to support the poorest then recession and poverty could be decoupled – if the cake stops growing, we have the option to share it out more equally. Just to indicate the scale of the funds the richest have available, a 2019 report by the Equality Trust estimated that, together, the richest six people in the UK had fortunes equal to the combined assets of around 13.2 million of the poorest people in the country. That politicians are not asking the richest for any extra contribution at all in this crisis shows where their priorities lie and – more disturbingly for our future – where the power lies.