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The billionaire space race epitomizes capitalism’s destructive obsession with growth

todayJuly 21, 2021 3

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Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids, laments the Rocket Man in Elton John’s timeless classic. In fact, it’s cold as hell, but that doesn’t seem to worry a new generation of space entrepreneurs intent on colonizing the “final frontier” as fast as possible.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no sullen technophobe. As lockdown projects go, NASA’s landing of the Perseverance rover on the surface of the red planet earlier this year was a hell of a blast. Watching it reminded me that I once led a high school debate defending the motion: this house believes that humanity should reach for the stars.

It must have been around the time that Caspar Weinberger was trying to persuade President Nixon not to cancel the Apollo space program. My brothers and I watched the monochrome triumph of the Apollo 11 landing avidly in 1969. We witnessed the near disaster of Apollo 13 – immortalized in a 1995 Hollywood film – when Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) and two rookie astronauts narrowly escaped with their lives by using the Lunar Module as an emergency life raft. We knew it was exciting up there.

I remember later going to see Apollo 13 (the film) with a friend who wasn’t born when the mission itself took place. “What did you think?” I asked as we came out of the cinema. “It was OK,” said my friend. “Just not very believable.”

But we kids were glued to our black-and-white TV sets the entire week of the original mission. We watched in horror as CO₂ levels rose in the Lunar Module, we endured the endless blackout as the returning astronauts plunged perilously back to Earth, and we held our breath with the rest of the world as the expected four minutes stretched to five and hope began to fade. It was a full six minutes before the camera finally came into focus on the command module’s parachutes – safely deployed above the Pacific Ocean. We felt the endorphin rush. We knew it was believable.

That was 1970. This is now. And here I am again on the edge of another sofa, in the lingering uncertainty of the time of COVID-19, waiting for signs of arrival from another re-entry blackout on another barren rock, devoid of breathable atmosphere, 200 million miles away. When the Perseverance Rover finally touches down on the surface of Mars: that same exhilaration, that same endorphin rush. It’s quite difficult to witness the jubilation behind the masks at NASA’s mission control without feeling a glimmer of vicarious joy.

But NASA’s clever science experiment is just the tip of an expansionary iceberg. A teaser, if you will, for an ambitious dream that is being driven faster and faster by huge commercial interests. A curious twist in a debate that has been raging now for almost half a century.