The world’s richest man keeps moving away from earth, but what does that mean for us groundlings?
Last week, Jeff Bezos, founder and executive chairman of Amazon, announced that he was headed to space by partnering with Blue Origin on the Orbital Reef, a low-orbit space station described as a “mixed-use business park.” You would think that being a mechanical engineer who wanted to work at NASA, I would be super stoked for this project, but actually, I’m quite appalled.
If you would’ve asked me five years ago how I felt about this project, I would have been quite excited. This is getting us one step closer to humans living in space, like the film “Passengers” or the novel “Artemis” by Andy Weir, but it’s also getting us closer to movies like “Wall-E,” in more ways than one.
Brent Sherwood, the senior Vice President of Advanced Development Programs at Blue Origin says, “We will expand access, lower the cost, and provide all the services and amenities needed to normalize space flight. A vibrant business ecosystem will grow in low Earth orbit, generating new discoveries, new products, new entertainments, and global awareness.”
Bezos himself claims that with this project, you can “have your own address in orbit.” It will be like a hotel in space, a playground for the rich and the perfect vacation for those who can afford it, but a curse for those who cannot.
Because in theory, to an engineer, this sounds like a cool project at first. We will get to expand our knowledge of space, improve our architecture, study the effects of space on our materials that will be exposed to the elements for long periods of time and further our technologies to achieve bigger and better projects. It’s a research dream because this is the kind of innovation that will further our society like never before to reach a new age of engineering, but it is all for the wrong reasons.
This project is commercialism at its finest, taking exciting new technology and using it towards the gain of companies that already make billions of dollars a year in sales. This will be a project that only those who can afford it will be able to enjoy. It doesn’t matter how common we make space travel; there are still people who can barely afford food, clothing and rent let alone a fancy vacation to space.
The money used to further this project could have been used for groundbreaking technology in an area that will positively affect our planet. With companies like Amazon being the reason climate change is accelerating so rapidly and little time to reverse it, the investments in Orbital Reef could have been used to design a solution to the climate crisis and to heal our environment. There are already numerous solutions planned to begin the healing process of our climate crisis, but they don’t have enough funding, especially by large corporations that are spearheading the issues.
Even if Bezos wanted to stay focused on space, there are countless projects he could have funded to clean up space. There are millions of pieces of space junk orbiting our planet and others, junk that humanity chucked up there, literally polluting our solar system (because apparently polluting our planet isn’t enough). Some of these space junk pieces are large, so large in fact they are being tracked in case they cause a bigger issue, but the millions of pieces come in being so small that we cannot locate where they are. We need to make further efforts in cleaning up space, because we should not be allowed to put more things up there until we start cleaning up the mess we have already made.
Like with the rocket Bezos rode in a little while ago, what was the point of that? Outside of flaunting his money and power, what did that do to further science? The exhaust and pollution expelled to propel that rocket into space, the fuel wasted for the ride and landing not too long after to simply prove that he could do it was one of Bezos’ largest wastes of resources yet.
Not to mention, if the Orbital Reef was cheap enough that low middle class would be able to venture out, you have to consider all of the training that is required to be in space. Astronauts go through one of the most rigorous programs to be qualified enough for their job, let alone a leisurely vacation up into space. It’s going to require so much training, technology and money to get people to the point that they can stay in the space hotel. This wouldn’t be a decision to make simply overnight.
And once Bezos is done with the space station, what is he going to do with it? Bring it back down to Earth and recycle the materials for other projects? Use the pieces at engineering companies to invent new product strategies? Or will it remain in space, unused and empty, just another piece of space junk?
There is much to consider with a project this large, a number of repercussions and lifelong effects that will touch more than just the lives of CEOs and billionaires. As cool as the engineering would be for Orbital Reef, inspiring ideas such as it need to be put towards projects that will save our planet, not further the harm.