Billionaires in Spaaaaace!

by wjw on July 5, 2016

I’m still on a mad rush to finish the novel, so I thought I’d pose a question for you all, and let you do the work of filling up this blog space.

A number of American billionaires (Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen, and Robert Bigelow, for starters) plus one highly-leveraged Brit (Sir Richard Branson) have started up their own space programs.

We in the States tend to approve of this (free enterprise on the final frontier, yeah!), but I wonder what we’d think of private space programs were being funded by billionaires of another nationality?

What would we think if five Chinese billionaires started shooting off their own rockets?  Or five Russian oligarchs?

As the world discovered back in the 1960s, rockets are tools the same way sharp knives are tools.  You can use a knife to pry the lid off a can of paint, to chop your way through jungle, or to stab your spouse to death.  Rockets carry payloads into space, and some of these payloads have military applications, and you can’t necessarily tell by looking.  So one thing a private space program can give you is deniability.

If a Chinese billionaire fired a rocket into space from his semi-secret Pacific volcanic island base (and Bezos had one of these, remember!), and if that rocket “accidentally” dropped a payload on an American task force patrolling the debated waters of the South China Sea (a tungsten “Rod of God,” for example, which vaporized on contact with the target thus providing even more deniability), and if the Chinese government denied any culpability and had the billionaire arrested and his physical assets acquired by the state  . . . or if a Russian package fell on, say, the capital of Estonia, and scattered radioactive waste equivalent to a dirty bomb, which required a large Russian military presence to clean up . . . Well, what would the US do?  Accept apologies?  Assume we’re in a state of war and launch World War III?

Well, you get the idea.  Does space exploration by billionaire still sound like such a great idea?

Of course if the Russians or Chinese look at our billionaires, they may not be so happy, either.

Plus, of course, a billionaire’s goals may not necessarily be the same as those of the ordinary citizen.  Elon Musk wants to build a space program and retire to Mars, which seems like an eccentric and wonky and basically harmless thing to do, but Jeff Bezos strikes me as a guy who basically wants to RULE THE WORLD!!!, and he hasn’t really provided any evidence to the contrary.  (In fact the nagging emails I get from Amazon about my ebooks only serve to convince me that he’s trying to micro-manage my life already.)

So are we scared yet?  Or is a billionaire developing what amounts to a first-strike capability covering the entire planet just a harmless eccentric?

Feel free to discuss.

IronOre July 6, 2016 at 9:28 am

Pretty sure Elon Musk just wants to get into space so he can back into contact with the other lizard people…

spacebuck July 6, 2016 at 11:30 am

Seems like we are a little complacent because our millionaires seem to be the types who would be out protesting a war, not providing the Man with a trojan horse for a first strike. OTH, there is the impression that Chinese or Russian oligarchs are in a more interdependent relationship with their respective states and perhaps cooperative with their goals.
You make a good point about the view from across the water. Since it’s human nature to view other’s motives through one’s own lens, and from a military standpoint you have to plan around capabilities because intentions can be difficult to discern, they likely have a jaundiced view of our kooky billionaires’ activities.
Gotta say though, it’s pretty exciting to watch all of the various paths to space underway now.

Ken Thomas July 6, 2016 at 9:37 pm

Remember S.R. Hadden? The reclusive billionaire character from Contact?
“Wanna take a ride?”

The point being that it seems like a legitimate thing to be concerned about, but in a world where money exerts a force capable of bending all things to the will of one person, I’m not convinced there’s anything we can do about it – short of a fundamental alteration to capitalist society.

wjw July 7, 2016 at 8:41 pm

While Russian and Chinese billionaires have a close, if parasitic, relationship with their homelands, so do ours. If you’re in America and doing aerospace, you’re doing it with the tacit permission of DOD and NASA and a number of others.

NASA keeps trying to co-opt Elon Musk by giving him stuff, but we’ll see if that works.

TRX July 8, 2016 at 8:23 am

> billionaires in space

…or with private armies, or bioweapons labs, or propaganda organizations, or any of the other things they already own, that nobody is concerned about?

How about just setting a nuke off on the ground somewhere? You don’t even need a missile. I’m sure a determined individual could lay his hands on one for well under a billion dollars. Depending on what type and how old it is, he might have to have the initiators remade, but that’s not rocket surgery.

It’s far too late to get worried about such things; an orbital strike would be just another option, not some unique capability.

Back in the 1980s the cyberpunkers thought that Giant Corporations Would Rule The World. In practice, it was cheaper to just outsource that sort of thing to already-existing specialist organizations, like national governmens.

Your proposed strike wouldn’t come from Tempel AG, it would be from the People’s Republic of Annacannapannastan, whose politicians could be bought for pocket change and their military capability bought on credit. Insert as many levels of deniability and cross-connection as you like, assuming you’re not issuing press releases bragging about it.

Nathanael July 22, 2016 at 11:49 pm

Don’t forget Bezos’s drone program, designed for delivering “packages”.

I fully expect Bezos to have his own private military soon, and it’ll have the best logistics of any military out there! 🙂 What *is* in all those warehouses?

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