Mural showing Jeff Bezos and his brother Mark Bezos, in Van Horn, Texas, two days before the scheduled launch of Blue Origin to the edge of space, July 18, 2021. (Thom Baur / Reuters)

By COOPER BARD

On Tuesday morning, July 20, celebrity capitalist Jeff Bezos, along with a few other rich folks (and the 18-year-old son of rich folks), [1] flew into space for 11 minutes. The flight did nothing to advance the human race, while wasting millions of dollars. There is some hoopla going around capitalist media about this being a “historic” flight, but history tells us otherwise. To understand this moment, it is worth looking at the history of human space flight before today.

Brief history of human accomplishments in space

The very first object humans have ever put into space was Sputnik 1, launched on Oct. 4, 1957, by the Soviet Union, the worlds first workers’ state. The first human in space was Yuri Gagarin. His spacecraft (Vostok 1) was launched from the Soviet Union on April 12, 1961. It should be noted that Gagarin was the son of a farmer, and his flight lasted an hour and a half. He was hailed as a hero by the Soviet people. Sixty years later, U.S. billionaires accomplished an 11-minute flight and are hailed as heroes by their own press. Two years later, on June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova would be the first women in space, in a solo mission on the Vostok 6, launched by the Soviet Union.

The first human to walk on another celestial object was Neil Armstrong, who landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, on the Apollo 11, launched by the United States (NASA). This is indeed an accomplishment worthy of praise, despite the Cold War optics of “winning” the “space race.” On Dec. 15, 1970, the first human object landed on another planet (Venus), the Venera 7 probe, launched by the Soviet Union.

In 1971, the Soviets would take the first photograph from the surface of Mars, using the Mars 3 lander. Unfortunately, this lander died within two minutes. NASA would land on Mars in 1976 with the Viking 1 lander, humanity’s first long-term success on Mars, with a six-year life. NASA would deploy more advanced probes to Mars later on, including the very successful Pathfinder project (1997). Deep space missions by NASA are still ongoing, including both Voyager probes (1977) and the New Horizons probe (2006), transmitting valuable data to Earthly astronomers.

Finally, one cannot forego mention of the International Space Station, the largest human object in space, operated and built up since the 1990s by multiple nations, with an international crew who can live for many months at a time in the station. Its purpose is as a (nearly) zero-gravity laboratory. The ISS is also expandable, capable of adding additional modules.

This is not an exhaustive history, it is simply meant to give background to the reality of Bezos’ Blue Origin project as not deserving much scientific respect. The man even has the gall to thank Amazon workers for his joy ride [2], after he had spent millions to crush unionization efforts in Bessemer, Ala. Amazon workers didn’t seem too excited, with one commenting, “I heard he was going to space, but to be honest, I didn’t really care.” Another worker stated, “I guess it was just a big deal for Jeff. We didn’t get anything out of it. Twenty-minute flight to space on us basically, since we do the work.”

Space exploration as private enterprise

Blue Origin, completed with the exploitation of Amazon workers, is not the only celebrity capitalist space project. SpaceX is another notable and media-grabbing project, owned by Elon Musk. Musk has acquired a certain sycophantic following of deluded people who view his Mars colonization ideas as acts of genius rather than the old ideas they are (plans that will indeed be well beyond the financial reach of ordinary folk).

Never mind the lack of originality; we should also point out the flat-out absurdity of expecting a single corporation to accomplish what whole governments, even in cooperation, are unable to do, even in the near future! Yet capitalist media, such as CNN, treat the question of Mars colonization as a matter of profitability or non-profitability for SpaceX [3].

Blue Origin and SpaceX are examples of a trend toward continuing privatization of public assets, placing them in the hands of capitalists for their own profit. In this case, the public assets are the scientific tools of NASA. The U.S. government has little interest in funding projects like space missions (they’d rather waste public funds in building new fighter jets), so, they hand off the task of getting objects and people in space to private corporations.

And what do these corporations do? They give joy rides to the ultra-rich while coastal cities flood and entire forests burn. Space exploration is no longer treated as the birthright of the human species, but the privilege of the rich. Carl Sagan is rolling in his grave, I assure you of that.

The current space flights did not contribute too much toward global warming, the proliferation of space junk, etc. However, the accumulated effects of numerous joy rides into space—which the billionaires state they are planning—might be considerable. One could judge that the environmental impact of space launches would be worth the scientific wealth these projects produce, but Blue Origin and its cousins produce zero scientific value. In the future, humanity could reduce the environmental impact by using space elevators (which would also be cheaper than rockets), but this innovation is still quite far off.

Where will this be in the history books?

Since the end of the Cold War, the willingness to fund and advance space travel by major nations has slowed, and in the near future only unmanned missions are planned for space exploration (excepting the ISS crew), including by the European Union, the United States, and China. This slowdown can be attributed to the fact that the ideological pressure for the bourgeoisie to outdo the “communists” in space is no longer present, and further, Russia and the United States have long demonstrated their capacity to launch ballistic missiles. It’s old news for imperialist geopolitics.

Only recently have imperialist powers renewed an interest in space flight (beyond civilian purposes), including the inauguration of the so-called “Space Force” branch of the U.S. military, a clear and direct response to China’s ambitions in space. As the conflict between Western and Eastern imperialism intensifies, the pendulum will swing again towards state control of space exploration for military purposes. Time will tell if private corporations are capable of playing ball with imperialism’s need to police the upper atmosphere.

Considering the capacity, already demonstrated by the ISS, for international cooperation in space flight, one could only imagine the potential accomplishments of the human species through scientific cooperation. It would be a tragedy if this potential were constrained to pricey luxury flights and hamstrung by inter-imperialist rivalry, or worse, militarization of space (which in itself would produce more space trash, thus making space travel even more expensive and dangerous in the long run). In the future, humans who look back on our planetary civilization today would surely find the sheer waste we engage in ridiculous. If we look back at the achievements of the world’s first (bureaucratized) workers state in leading space flight, what could socialism achieve tomorrow, with modern technology and methods? What if we put the same funding into NASA as we do into the military?

Billionaires like Bezos and Musk are likely to provide tickets for space flights going forward, and they may even entertain far-out colonization projects. But history has already demonstrated humanity’s capacity to explore space, whether organized by capitalist governments or workers’ states. These people are not pioneers—but they are rich. They are an example of a decadent and parasitic class that would rather leave behind the planet they are destroying than solve its problems. They are an example of a fantasy in which wealth is able to open the doors to the heavens, yet they are very much grounded by the realities of a suffering world, and they cannot escape. After revolution has consumed them, humanity can resume our travel to the stars without these silly interruptions of self-interested glamour.

“All this world is heavy with the promise of greater things, and a day will come, one day in the unending succession of days, when beings, beings who are now latent in our thoughts and hidden in our loins, shall stand upon this Earth as one stands upon a footstool, and laugh and reach out their hands amidst the stars.”  — H.G. Wells, 1903

Sources

[1] https://www.cnn.com/2021/07/20/tech/jeff-bezos-blue-origin-launch-scn/index.html

CNN reports on the flight.

[2] https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/companies/jeff-bezos-thanked-amazon-workers-for-paying-for-his-space-flight-for-some-the-feeling-isnt-mutual/ar-AAMnanA

MSN Money on Jeff Bezos’ post-flight comments and the response of the workers.

[3] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/09/08/tech/spacex-mars-profit-scn/index.html

CNN “discourse” on Musk’s Mars colonization plan.