In an exchange of Tweets, Bernie Sanders and Elon Musk are going at it over the future of humanity and the planet (or, potentially, planets). At issue: The usual debate over whether the exploration and settlement of space takes away from real issues here on Earth.
It started with a Tweet in which Bernie Sanders criticized Elon Musk and aerospace rival Jeff Bezos for accumulating wealth. It was the usual talk about income inequality:
Elon Musk did seem to acknowledge the point, but says that there is a difference between accumulating wealth purely for the sake of being wealthy and accumulating wealth for a specific purpose:
Bernie Sanders snapped back with this Tweet:
What Bernie Sanders Gets Right
Income inequality is a real problem when the bottom earners rely on welfare to afford basic essentials like rent and food. Many corporations like Walmart have been accused of being the real “welfare queens” because the Walton family that owns Walmart rakes in profit while Walmart’s bottom rung employees need SNAP cards in order to feed themselves and sometimes their families.
The motive of people like the Waltons is pretty obvious. They just want the profit. A $15 an hour minimum wage probably wouldn’t hurt them much. They simply prefer to spend the money on lobbyists, political donations, and another yacht instead.
What Bernie Sanders Gets Wrong
Helping the less fortunate and establishing a solid presence in space do not have to be mutually exclusive concepts. Some people, like Elon Musk, see a future in which there are permanent and expanding space settlements as an exciting and inspirational one. It’s a future that people might be able to make entire careers in.
In fact, if Austin becomes the boom town that Elon Musk predicted, it may partly be due to the Tesla and SpaceX facilities being built around the city. If one goes by SpaceX’s career page, young people in Austin may be well-advised to go into engineering as a career. Every engineer who is employed by Elon Musk’s companies is one who is unlikely to have a SNAP card.
Sanders’ statement also doesn’t change the fact that demand for launch services will not go down. NASA recently selected SpaceX to launch components for the Lunar Gateway. SpaceX also recently landed contracts to launch a lunar lander for Intuitive Machines and a methane emission tracker for MethaneSAT. And, of course, the U.S. military will frequently put out requests for bids for launches of military hardware into space.
The use of reusable hardware like the rocket stages that SpaceX will land on barges for refurbishment and reuse can actually save taxpayer dollars for each launch.
Anyway, taxing someone like Elon Musk more will take money away from his development of electric vehicles and reusable rockets (both of which are environmentally friendly because EVs mean fewer greenhouse gases and reusable rockets mean less rocket stages being thrown into the ocean to rust). And the increased taxes will be no guarantee that the money will be used to actually help people instead of being used to feed the bloated military-industrial complex.
The Pentagon has requested a budget of slightly more than $700 billion for the 2022 budget year, sparking a letter signed by 50 Democrats urging Biden to curtail that.
“While we are heartened that your administration is not contemplating expanding the Pentagon’s already inflated budget, our new Democratic majorities in Congress along with your administration should go further,” the letter said.
The military is still likely to get a budget in the hundreds of billions of dollars if not everything it asks for — money that could instead be used to open up opportunities for the less fortunate. This is what any additional taxes on Elon Musk are likely to pay for.
What Elon Musk Gets Right
“This is really about eliminating existential risk for civilization as a whole. … Being confined to Earth until some eventual extinction event is depressing. We need things that make you want to get out of bed in the morning,” Elon Musk told the audience at last August’s virtual Mars Society conference — sentiments that had been echoed by Mars Society president Robert Zubrin.
It may not get to the point where humans are at immediate risk within our lifetimes. However, every so often, we hear about large asteroids passing between Earth and the Moon. Some experts say that, if the Tunguska Event meteor had entered the atmosphere just a few hours earlier, it could have caused a significant death toll and damage in the St. Petersburg area.
SpaceX can also launch satellites that are helpful for better understanding the effects of climate change and ecological destruction. MethaneSAT is designed to fill the Environmental Defense Fund’s goal of developing the capacity to track Environmental Defense Fund. SpaceX also recently launched the ocean observation satellite Sentinel-6, which will track climate change’s effect on the oceans. SpaceX has also expressed interest in closing the digital divide by using its Starlink satellites for anything from working with school districts to provide high-speed Internet for low-income families to working out a plan for low-cost Internet access and phone service for the less fortunate.
Of course, addressing things like income inequality and climate change and building a future in which offworld settlements exist do not have to be mutually exclusive concepts. Even many of Bernie Sanders’ colleagues in Congress have gone on record with their concerns about how taxpayer dollars are used. (Would be cool if more taxpayer dollars were used to send Earth observation satellites into space and fewer were used to bomb third world countries.)