Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and arguably the most famous billionaire on the planet after Bill Gates, went to space last week. Earlier this month, Virgin CEO Richard Branson took his own getaway to the cosmos, breaching the nearest reaches of space in the craft that he bankrolled. After nearly 17 years of development and over a billion dollars invested in Virgin Galactic—which aims to begin commercial service in early 2022—Branson’s spacecraft, the VSS Unity, launched above the skies of New Mexico and reached an altitude of 53.5 miles. (Not to be outdone, Bezos reportedly went 13 miles further than Branson did.) All of this comes just months after the recent achievement of Elon Musk’s SpaceX and NASA, when the private/public partnership launched and docked a craft at the International Space Station.
The normalization of space travel will slowly remake what space represents for us, and this will have profound consequences for what it means to be human.
The New Shepard rocket, which shuttled Bezos to the stars on Tuesday, was designed by Blue Origin, the aerospace and sub-orbital spaceflight company he founded in 2000 to create safer, more accessible space travel in the near future. The oligarch was joined on the trek by three others: Bezos’ brother, an octogenarian NASA alum, and a Dutch adolescent whose billionaire father reportedly paid tens of millions of dollars to secure the spot.
Before he took flight, Bezos addressed some of the public criticism that he has faced—criticism that suggests these missions amount to nothing more than adventure-seeking and tourism for the (very) monied class. Others said that there are more pressing problems here on Earth that tycoons could be throwing money at. In response to these critics, Mediaite reports that Bezos said, “They’re largely right. We have lots of problems here and now on Earth, and we need to work on these, and we always need to look to the future. We’ve always done that as a species, as a civilization. We have to do both.”
Bezos elaborated further on Good Morning America: “What we’re hoping to do is build the road to space so future generations […] will be able to do amazing things in space if we get good at reusable vehicles. If we can get to that stage, then the things the next generation will do—how to benefit Earth with everything in space—that will be amazing. That’s the real goal.”
Many Americans are understandably thrilled by these private efforts to bring space closer to the world. It is exciting to live in an era when the dream of publicly accessible space travel might be realized, and it is tantalizing to think about the ways that space exploration could improve life on Earth. But quotes like the ones above, especially when uttered by men of the type that Bezos represents, portend that the future of space travel might be less glamorous than we’re being told. In truth, the normalization of space travel will slowly remake what space represents for us, and this will have profound consequences for what it means to be human.
In its 1966 debut, only three years before the American moon landing, which ended the battle that Russia’s Sputnik began, Star Trek announced to audiences that space was “the final frontier.” This is an apt comparison. And the history of the American frontier gives ample cause to temper our hopes and aspirations about the domestication of space.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF AMERICA’S DOMESTICATION (OR, HOW THE WEST WAS WON)
Manifest Destiny, an idea that developed in the first century of the American republic, was the conviction that it was divine fate that the then-growing nation should eventually stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Today, we assume that this belief was unquestioned—that all 19th century Americans endorsed it and that it drove official government policy. But in fact, there was significant disagreement about the wisdom of this idea. Some people, including none less than Abraham Lincoln, had reservations about it. We know how that story ended, but it’s worth looking carefully at how and when it ended, and considering the ramifications of that ending.
The history of global exploration should inform our discussion of space exploration: what role does unclaimed and unmapped territory play in social life?
In 1800, the vast majority of the continent was still untamed wilderness. Some colonial powers (especially the Spanish) had led expeditions deep into the far west. But the vastness of the territory, the ruggedness of much of the west, and the climate extremes (to say nothing of the native tribes that lived there) made it difficult to establish permanent settlements. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 effectively bought out French interests in North America. When the Mexicans won independence from Spain in 1821 (and thus eliminating any geopolitically meaningful Spanish presence in mainland North America), Spain’s claim to their colonies throughout the New World was falling apart. As the Spanish focused on defending their holdings in South America, the path for America’s Manifest Destiny was cleared.
In the 1830s and ‘40s, Americans began to flood into the far west along routes like the Oregon Trail and others that had been established by fur traders and mountain men. Movement is a key characteristic of Americans. Our national character is determined in large part by the fact that everyone here—even “Native” groups—are the descendants of migrant people. The move westward, into space that was unknown and (in the minds of the settlers) unclaimed, was a natural development for a nation of movers.
This fascination with open space isn’t just American, though. Civilizations from all over the world have dedicated immense resources to exploration. China’s Ming dynasty explored as far as Africa. Medieval African explorers went as far as China. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, arctic exploration was influencing the American literary imagination. It was only a few hundred years ago that the globe had been fully mapped with any accuracy. Most importantly, our awareness of undiscovered places fueled people’s curiosities. The will to know drives the spirit of exploration, which manifests itself in a kind of adventurism that is central to human experience. The history of global exploration should inform our discussion of space exploration: what role does unclaimed and unmapped territory play in social life?
At the risk of triggering some readers, this discussion of space calls to mind some passages from Bronze Age Mindset (2018), a book that has recently been circulating within certain groups on the political right. It’s a dangerous book (or so I’m told), because despite its “fractured and incoherent” style, it nevertheless “exerts a sneaky power over the reader.” Its pseudonymous author calls himself “Bronze Age Pervert,” and he observes some important connections between conflicts over territory and the development of men.
Human flourishing depends on the existence of undiscovered, unclaimed space.
Discussing the behavior of boys, he says, “The jockeying for status, the physical fights, the adventures boys are supposed to have in a state of nature… all of this is in nature meant as preparation for life, for a life of conquest and expansion.” The Pervert identifies a crisis of modern masculinity in relation to this “preparation for life,” noting that the “buffoonish, deluded character” of men today is due to the fact that all of the space that surrounds them is “already-owned space.” Put differently, in a highly developed society of the modern kind—a world that is completely mapped, geographically, conceptually, and aspirationally—there is no space for the adult forms of conquest that the boyhood routines of play both simulate and refine. Thus, says the Pervert, “the defeated male […] is turned into a peon and a neutered beast for women and hidden masters.”
The lesson that we must draw from the Pervert is that, to some important extent, human flourishing depends on the existence of undiscovered, unclaimed space. Understood in this context, Manifest Destiny emerged from this human urge to explore, to know, and to conquer—and the westward movement of Americans into unsettled spaces served to satisfy such urges. But a few problems extended from this. The first is that monetary enterprise is another essential characteristic of human beings, and the American form of conquest was especially commercial in its deployment. In practice, Americans’ “conquering of the west” did not just mean exploring, knowing, and mapping. It also meant subordinating all of that land, from the Louisiana Purchase out, to capitalist forms of commerce and production. In other words, their conquest was victorious only when the unknown, unowned space was fully converted into known, owned space and was adapted to a preestablished order of cultural life.
The second problem is that the world is only so big; as more and more unknown territory is conquered and stabilized, there is less and less space left to conquer. And if Bronze Age Pervert is right that the availability of such space is central to humanity’s thymos, then a fully claimed and conquered world will ensure that certain human needs will be denied.
In the decades that followed, American territory would become increasingly domesticated, systematized, and administered.
So it was in the American West. The culture of “mountain men” thrived in the empty west. These were men who sought adventure and exploration, trading furs, and blazing new trails through the wilderness. But as the west filled up—as it was domesticated and conquered—the sort of life that the mountain men lived became increasingly impossible. It’s no coincidence that historians generally hold that mountain man culture began to decline after the 1840s, around the time when the California gold rush began in 1848. Hundreds of thousands of people moved west in search of precious metal, an example of the American appetite for commerce in action. The landscape of California was remade to accommodate the search for this commodity—streams were redirected, forests leveled, railroads built—the unknown space was rapidly being subdued and reordered to serve commercial interests. It was becoming “already-owned space.” In 1869, the “golden spike” was hammered in, completing the First Transcontinental Railroad—an achievement that foretold the coming conclusion of American westward expansion.
The story of the decades after the Civil War is not the winning of the west, but the taming of it. Dependable trade routes had been established across the land, and the native claims to the land were being negated through treaties and US military force. There were still some adventures to be had in America—cowboy culture flourished in the southwest almost up until the twentieth century. But in the decades that followed, American territory would become increasingly domesticated, systematized, and administered. Less wild. Already-owned space.
Now, the memory of American adventurism itself has been commodified. Movies like “The Revenant” (2015), “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964), and “Dances With Wolves” (1990) sell the pathos that defined older modes of life that are no longer possible in America. Today, you can buy a Big Mac just a few miles outside of Tombstone, Arizona—a boomtown from the last decades of the Old West, which was recently saved from becoming a ghost town by being converted to a museum. The American land itself and our relationship to it has been utterly demystified. We’re becoming a different people.
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Thus, we return to the billionaires’ space race. Will Bezos and the rest do to space what we did to the west? Just like the west was largely “empty,” the very word we use in reference to the heavens underscores its emptiness: space. As the “final frontier,” the impending age of space exploration begs the question: when this unknown, unowned space becomes known and owned, what will we do without any frontiers?
Ultimately, what men like Bezos, Musk, and Branson want is for space to become accessible, which is to say they want to make it mundane.
Outer space, in many ways, represents human limitation. Prehistoric people produced art that showed their fascination with the cosmos—suns, moons, and stars took on mystical qualities. Our preoccupation with space is also due in part to its inaccessibility. Even after the moon landing, space remains inaccessible in the minds of most Americans. It is a mystery. And mystery—the unknown coupled with our will to know it—is (again) the spirit of exploration. So, we find ourselves (again) fulfilling a particular human desire (the exploration of the unknown) in such a way that will eventually ensure that we will be unable to fulfill it: after we have unlocked the mysteries of space, there will be nowhere left to explore.
Ultimately, what men like Bezos, Musk, and Branson want is for space to become accessible, which is to say they want to make it mundane. They want to discover its mysteries. They want to make it known, to assimilate it to a pre-established order. How do I know that? Recall Bezos’ own words: his aim is to figure out “how to benefit Earth with everything in space.” As he says, “That’s the real goal.”
It can’t be overlooked that this “goal” is one that is tinged by the same commercial interests that we saw in the era of westward expansion. If the millions paid by a Dutch billionaire to get his teenage son on a space flight doesn’t tip you off to the nature of the game, nothing will. Bezos wants to retrieve “everything” in space—he wants its stuff, so that it can be brought here and made to serve specific material ends to be determined by… well, who? With the commercialization of space comes the concerns of property and ownership. And you can rest assured: although you might one day be able to log onto Prime and order up a trip to space, you won’t own it. But someone will. The billionaires club is starting to lay their claims.
When space is fully mapped, demystified, and divested of “everything” that might be useful to civilization on Earth, we will have lost something profound. Sure, we will have extended our reach and overcome a limitation. But human limitation—the indication that we are not gods—is of critical value to the human experience, and thus, to who and what we are. That value is of a different order than Bezos’ commodities, and when it is exhausted, Amazon can’t deliver more to your door. Let the interstellar gold rush begin.