On May 9, in what the New York Times described as a “a carefully choreographed event akin to an announcement of a new iPhone,” Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the richest man in the world, showed the world the Blue Moon, his rocket company’s proposed moon lander.
There is some irony in the Times’ description. When Apple announces a new iPhone, after all, the new iPhone already exists. Bezos’s moon lander does not (except as a computer animation). Its hydrogen-oxygen “BE-7” engine, as Bezos said, is a “hard problem... that needs still to be solved.” In other words, he did not so much announce a new iPhone as produce a sci-fi fan film for YouTube. Nevertheless, since Bezos is very, very rich and we figured out how to land men on the moon 50 years ago, it seems probable that he will be able to pay his way to recreating the extraordinary technical feats of our more analog past.
In this most recent endeavor, Bezos plays the buff straight man to the comic stylings of our other space-obsessed billionaire, Elon Musk. But where Musk prefers bravura stunts — he once launched a Tesla into space — and flashily dreams of planting a colony on Mars, Bezos, in keeping with the indefatigable obsession with systems and networks that has made Amazon an omnipresent feature of the modern world, has a far more precisely imagined program for getting mankind out into the Solar System, if not quite to the stars.
First, Bezos says, we have to build an infrastructure. Back in the ancient era of the Obama administration, one of the great national scandals was the president using the phrase, “you didn’t build that,” to refer to America’s heroic entrepreneurial class, which was, in context, just an expression of the uncontroversial truism that someone needs to establish the roads and bridges, the power grid and the sewers, the laws and courts and currency, before Joe Business can put a factory in your town. Bezos knows that this is almost infinitely more true in space, that his vision of “thousands” of entrepreneurs flocking into orbit will require launch vehicles or space elevators, power and air, communications systems and networks of transit. It is one thing to have a gold rush on Earth; even harsh Alaska can sustain human life. It is quite another in the cold, irradiated vacuum of space.
When Apple announces a new iPhone, after all, the new iPhone already exists. Bezos’s moon lander does not.
Eventually, Bezos imagines, humankind will build space habitats. His preferred vision is the so-called O’Neill colony, the 1970s brainchild of American physicist Gerard K. O’Neill in which cylindrical habitats spun on the long axis to create a semblance of gravity, later popularized in innumerable science fiction stories, movies, and TV. From there, we’ll mine asteroids, melt moon ice for water, and grow into the trillions. We’ll move our dirty industries into space. The less populous earth, no longer groaning under the ravenous hungers of its 7.5 billion residents — or more, by the time we actually get off it — will grow verdant again. “It'll be a beautiful place to live. It'll be a beautiful place to visit,” Bezos told the gathered press.
I’m not so cynical as to be entirely unmoved by this vision, even though I know I’m being sold an infinite swamp. I’m a lifelong fan of science fiction, from the pulpiest adventures to the most high-minded speculative literature in the genre. I was introduced to it by my grandmother when I was just a boy. She loved Westerns, and she loved Star Trek. I can remember watching The Original Series with her in reruns when she babysat for my brother and me.
On the other hand, I never really cared for Westerns, and for years I thought the juxtaposition of the two genres in her personal canon was awkward and funny, until a high-school English teacher pointed out to me the obvious: that Star Trek was a Western, dressed up in a usually optimistic humanism and set in outer space. Space — you know, “the final frontier.”
The romance of the frontier is that it represents the advance of civilization into empty and barbarous spaces, that nature and its savage inhabitants are tamed and conquered, its resources marshalled in the service of progress and prosperity. It’s a violent romance, and we’ve rightly come to view it with skepticism, embarrassment, shame, and guilt. Well, some of us have, anyway. The frontier — especially the American frontier of the romantic imagination — is now seen by academic historians and by the broad political left as a site of conflict, of genocide, and of extinction.
The space billionaires promote their offworld fantasies with a lot of ersatz environmentalism, a theme-park Eden earth and a proliferation of bucolic interplanetary space habitats, the mutated offspring of The Jetsons and Frank Lloyd Wright’s dreamily suburban Broadacre City. The actual vision is more chillingly avaricious: we’ve squeezed the Earth about as dry as we can; let’s go wreck the solar system instead. But mining asteroids is just doing mountaintop removal in microgravity, and preserving the pretty features — Saturn’s rings; Haley’s Comet — is indulging a fantasy that the salvation of the environment is the establishment of some National Parks.
The romance of the frontier is that it represents the advance of civilization into empty and barbarous spaces.
And aside from rocketing around wrecking the natural features of the cosmic neighborhood, there is the even more compelling question of life, not almond-eyed aliens zipping around the universe in flying saucers, but life nonetheless. The more we learn about life on Earth — how it colonizes deep volcanic vents; how it survives deep in the planet’s crust, perhaps nearly to the smoldering mantle — the more likely it appears that some extremophile biology exists beyond our planet: perhaps in the ice or freezing oceans of Io or Enceladus, perhaps in the gaseous atmospheres of one of the Jovian planets.
The pop-culture image of extraterrestrial microorganisms is of contagion, an uncurable and deadly Andromeda Strain hitching back to earth on a rocket, but the far more likely scenario is human contamination of a foreign environment. Well, what voyage of discovery would be complete without the introduction of smallpox and the eradication of the native?
All this ignores the basic hostility to human life of the interplanetary medium: vast, freezing, and radioactive. Science fiction imagines self-sustaining habitats of all kinds, but, as I have joked, a species that seems bent on environmental suicide on the very planet on which it evolved seems an unlikely candidate for self-preservation on a raft in an infinitely harsher, more unforgiving, and inhuman environment.
This is where they really give up the game. There is a trope in leftist criticism of the space billionaires: that they intend, with their rich friends, to fuck off up to their rotating Elysiums while the rest of us choke on the dust of the dying earth. But I rather think they intend to blast us up there — Bezos basically admitted as much in talking about workers for the orbital mines and factories — to mutate from the radiation and suffocate in the rotten recycled air. A trillion humans in a billion spaceborne warehouses dropping next-minute deliveries down the gravity well to the population of zillionaire aristos on the green, and surely heavily garrisoned, Earth.