I first realized something was up when Elon Musk launched a car into orbit. It was January of 2018 and SpaceX was looking to test its Falcon Heavy rocket, woo the U.S. military, and make sure everyone was watching. So rather than display the Falcon’s carrying capacity with, say, slabs of concrete or steel, Musk decided to strap a blazing red Tesla Roadster to its back. A perfectly good, even exquisite, car. One hundred thousand dollars’ worth of chrome, leather, steel, glass, state-of-the-art navigation software, green technology, and human labor hurled uselessly into orbit—not around the Earth but around the sun. It was an act of immense bravado, extraordinary waste, and literally cosmic presumptuousness: now along with eight planets and some dwarves, moons, and asteroids, there is a tricked-out convertible circling our solar orb, driven ‘til the end of days by a spacesuited mannequin called “Starman.”
Musk named his doomed astrobot after the alien messiah of David Bowie’s 1972 Ziggy Stardust album. Bowie’s song “Life on Mars” accompanied the rocket launch that flung the Roadster toward the stars and his “Space Oddity” still loops endlessly on the car’s JVC speakers. Starman’s glove compartment is stuffed with multimedia versions of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. And the Falcon Heavy rocket itself is named after the Millennium Falcon of Star Wars. Musk, you might say, is a geek’s geek, his aesthetic composed by a nostalgia for the future of his teenage past: rockets, spacesuits, Martian colonies, glam-rock, and a free-market promise of infinite possibility.
Musk is also an inveterate showman. Back in 2003, he was having a hard time getting NASA to take SpaceX and its newly fabricated Falcon 1 seriously. So he drove the seven-story rocket on an enormous flatbed truck from Boca Chica Texas to Washington D.C. and parked it on the street outside the headquarters of the Federal Aviation Administration  Davenport, C. (2019). The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos. PublicAffairs, p. 42.. In the two decades since then, Musk has continued to manufacture all manner of eye-catching spectacles: Twitter-stormed launches, dramatic explosions, tickets sold to billionaires for trips on unbuilt ships, and a manifesto about his intention to save “humanity” by getting the hell off the doomed planet Earth  Musk, E. (2017). Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species. New Space 5, p. 2..
Meanwhile, on the other side of Texas, Jeff Bezos has been making a lot less noise. In the early 2000s, while Musk was dragging NASA, the Air Force, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin into high-profile antitrust suits, Bezos was quietly buying up ranches to build his own space company, Blue Origin. Under the auspices of improvised corporations, Bezos cobbled together over 300,000 acres of West Texan land so he could test his rockets without anyone noticing  Davenport, C. (2019). The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos. PublicAffairs, 42, p. 26.. Musk had bought land too, of course, but he makes so much noise that the rangers at Mother Neff State Park now warn their visitors that if something sounds like the end of the world, it’s probably not. (At least not yet.)
The men are both magicians, but of really different sorts. Musk pulls rabbits out of hats while Bezos makes the coin disappear behind your ear. While Musk is shouting, “Look, Mom! [explosion] Wait, that’s not it,” Bezos hides in his room to perfect the trick. Both billionaires are building reusable, affordable, state-of-the-art rockets, but Musk raced to the launches while Bezos worked on the landings. Elon’s had us looking up at the exploding skies while Jeff has kept us staring at our own damn laps, 1-Clicking the lint rollers, cake pans, and dog sweaters that finance his more cosmic endeavors. As Bezos finally explained about a year ago, “Every time you buy shoes, you’re helping Blue Origin. I appreciate it very much.”  Cao, S. (2019). Bezos Thinks He’s Winning the ‘Billionaire Space Race.’ The Fair Observer. https://observer.com/2019/02/amazon-jeff-bezos-blue-origin-space-race/ (And suddenly I hate my shoes.)
More nerd than geek, Bezos reads everything in print, considers even the most outlandish alternatives before making up his mind, and demands that ideas be pitched in full-paragraph form. As we all know, he is a books guy; in addition to Aesop, his references include JRR Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, Ian M. Banks, Neal Stephenson, and William Gibson. Now and then, he even mentions A Wrinkle in Time, the single work by a woman to make the astropreneurial canon. But when it comes to space, Bezos’s biggest influence is Star Trek.
While Musk is off actualizing George Lucas with his exploding Falcons and epic soundtracks, Bezos is cultivating the more genteel gestalt of the starship Enterprise. As the Atlantic’s Franklin Foer reports, Bezos initially wanted to call Amazon “MakeItSo.com” as an homage to Captain Jean-Luc Picard, whom he now uncannily resembles  Foer, F. (2019). Jeff Bezos’s Master Plan. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/11/what-jeff-bezos-wants/598363/. Bezos named his dog Kamala in honor of the empathic metamorph from Krios Prime  Kamala. Memory Alpha Fandom. https://memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/Kamala, and as we all know, he just boldly took William Shatner where no ninety-year-old actor had gone before. The question you might be asking is, why? What are these billionaires up to in space?
II. Life on Mars
It is probably old news to you by now: Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos want us off the planet. Not all of us, of course, but according to both of these absurdly wealthy utopians, the future of the species will depend on those humans who have got the foresight, fortitude, and finances to head to outer space. Just as it was for Captain Kirk and the Apollo crews, space has become for these latter-day pioneers “the final frontier”: a place of new worlds, untold fortunes, and immense danger.
Musk and Bezos are notorious rivals, competing for contracts, exchanging online jabs, and continually trading places as the Wealthiest Man on Earth. Both of them have testified repeatedly that their efforts in space are of utmost personal, professional, and existential importance, and that their obscene fortunes are justified as means to a humanitarian end—which is to say, the salvation of life as we know it. Despite these significant similarities, however, the two men differ not only in temperament and approach, but also in values and vision. When it comes down to it, the two billionaires want different things in different places for vastly different reasons.
Infamously, Musk wants to go to Mars. In fact, as he explained in a 2016 manifesto, it’s been his goal all along: “making humans a multiplanetary species” by setting up a “self-sustaining city” on the Red Planet  Musk, E. (2017). Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species. New Space 5.. Having learned the argument from the aerospace engineer and long-time Mars advocate Robert Zubrin, Musk explains to anyone who will listen that the Earth is a ticking time-bomb. Sooner or later, something will destroy humanity, whether it be an asteroid, nuclear war, or AI robots gone rogue. Sooner or later, we are going to have to find somewhere else to live, and given the literally infernal conditions of Venus, Mars is our best chance. Of course, five billion years from now, the sun will explode into a red giant and engulf Mars along with Earth in a fiery apocalypse. So, if we want humanity to endure forever, we will eventually have to make it to another solar system. But we will never be able to live anywhere else unless we start close to home – and soon, before a giant asteroid or Alexa 5.0 wipes out the whole species.
At times, Musk seems to realize how much he sounds like that guy on the street with a cardboard sign that says “THE END IS NEAR.” Both disavowing and adopting the role of lunatic prophet, he writes, “I do not have an immediate doomsday prophecy, but eventually… there will be some doomsday event.” With apocalypse on the horizon, our first option is to let the disaster extinguish us as it did the dinosaurs—an option Musk finds so intolerable he never even entertains it. “The alternative,” he says, “is to become a space-bearing civilization and a multi-planetary species, which I hope you would agree is the right way to go.”  Musk, E. (2017). Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species. New Space 5, 46. So Mars it is.
Much like any other doomsday prophet, Musk keeps revising his timeline. Having initially promised to send crewed missions to Mars in 2020, he then nudged it to 2025, and at this point, Musk hopes to send the first few humans to the Red Planet just before or after 2030, with the goal of getting a million people to Mars by 2050. A million people. To Mars.
The challenge will be making the enterprise affordable… ish. At the moment, Musk shows by means of a perfectly bizarre Venn Diagram, the price to Mars is infinite, leaving the set of people who want to go to Mars completely distinct from the set of people who can afford to go to Mars. Using conventional technology, Musk estimates that the price for a round-trip ticket to Mars could drop to 10 billion dollars a person. But once his rockets attain full reusability and efficiency, Musk predicts he will be able to lower the cost to $200,000, “the median cost of a house in the United States.”  Musk, E. (2017). Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species. New Space 5, 47. At that price, in his words, “almost anyone” could go to Mars. All they would need to do is save up a bit, sell their house, and pack a very small bag. Anyone who does not have the money can always get sponsored by an employer and pay it off with a few years of labor, indentured servant-style.  https://www.highsnobiety.com/p/elon-musk-colonizing-mars-indentured-slavery/
Fashioning himself after the American tycoons of the 19th Century, Musk promises to build an interplanetary transportation system akin to the transcontinental railroad. This cargo route will bring earthly supplies to the nascent Martian colony every 26 months when the two planets come closest to one another. As it becomes self-sufficient, the colony will rely less and less on such deliveries, gradually gaining the capacities to grow its own food, manufacture its own fuel, and mine sufficient resources to create and sustain infrastructure. Eventually, there will be no need for ships to come at all, except to transport passengers and perhaps to engage in trade.
When it comes to advertising his new colony, Musk alternates between appealing to aspirational homesteaders and revving up post-prom kids. On the one hand, he admits, Mars is going to be seriously hard work. Under current conditions, it is impossible to breathe or even just be on the planet without a space suit. Since Mars has so little atmosphere, it would turn all the water in a human body to steam and kill it instantaneously. Even with a space suit, there is so much radiation on Mars that it will likely cause the colonists severe health problems. So as Musk concedes from time to time, Mars will be like the Oregon Trail on a really bad day: “There’s a good chance you’ll die,” he says; “it’s going to be tough going.”  Beers, D. (2020). Selling the American Space Dream: The Cosmic Delusions of Elon Musk and Wehrner Von Braun. The New Republic. https://newrepublic.com/article/160268/selling-american-space-dream
As for the planet itself, Musk promises, “it would be quite fun to be on Mars, because you would have gravity that is about 37% of that of Earth, so you would be able to lift heavy things and bound around.”  Musk, E. (2017). Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species. New Space 5, p. 46. Sure, the air is primarily carbon dioxide, but the same stuff that is so toxic to humans will make it easy to grow plants “just by compressing the atmosphere.” Faced with the problem of “the radiation thing,” Musk says inexplicably that it’s “not too big of a deal,”  Davenport, C. (2019). The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos. PublicAffairs, p. 244. and although he understands that Mars is “a little cold”—the average temperature is -80 degrees Fahrenheit (-62 degrees Celsius) – he assures his future colonists that “we can warm it up.”  Musk, E. (2017). Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species. New Space 5, p. 46.
How exactly do you “warm up” a frozen planet? Musk’s ideological predecessor Zubrin proposes “greenhousing” Mars; that is, imitating the process currently roasting the Earth by releasing chlorofluorocarbons, genetically engineered gassy bacteria, or even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere of Mars.  Zubrin, R. & Wagner, R. (2011). The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must. New York: Free Press, p. 268. The popular physicist Michio Kaku favors the idea of harvesting methane from Saturn’s moon Titan and importing it to the Martian skies.  Kaku, M. (2018). Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond Earth. New York: Doubleday. But all this sounds far too complicated to Musk, who suggests we can just “nuke Mars,” instead. Hit the airspace above the ice caps with some hydrogen bombs and you’ll jumpstart the warming process, liberate tons of water, and move the colony that much closer to autonomy. To be sure, most scientists think this is an absolutely ridiculous plan.  Tass Russian News Agency. (2020, May 12). Elon Musk will need more than 10,000 missiles to nuke Mars — Roscosmos. https://tass.com/science/1155417 The Director of the Russian space agency Roscosmos has estimated it would take more than 10,000 missiles to carry out the “nuke Mars” plan. Musk’s Twitter-response? “No problem.”  Musk, E. [@elonmusk]. (2020, May 17). No problem [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1262076013841805312
(Actually, it is not that we don’t know how to do it. It is just that we don’t want to.)
When asked why he is choosing to “save” humanity by sending us to Mars rather than by addressing injustice, poverty, and climate change on Earth, Musk will often laugh and say, “Fuck Earth.”  Andersen. R. (2014). Exodus. Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/elon-musk-puts-his-case-for-a-multi-planet-civilisation Earth is done; Earth is history; Earth is so last-aeon. Considering the coral reefs, wetlands, and clean skies that SpaceX has polluted and destroyed, and considering Musk’s own advancement of artificial intelligence, one could even accuse him of worsening the disaster to intensify the need for salvation. Of making the planet genuinely uninhabitable so that we will, indeed, need to leave it. For a Martian utopia.
The word “utopia” comes from the Greek word topos, or “place.” The “u” is privative, meaning that it negates the word it precedes. Etymologically, then, utopia means “no-place.” And it is just this imprecision, this lack of location, this perpetual fuzziness that allows utopianism to flourish. If it is never quite anywhere, or never quite realized, then a utopia can be whatever you would like it to be. Classic utopians like Plato, Thomas Moore, and Marx and Engels gave us very clear ideas of what their ideal societies would look like: classes are either concretized or demolished, money is either distributed or abolished, and so on. Musk, by contrast, offers what one might call utopianism without the utopia. You will not find any social or political blueprints in Musk’s motivational talks or business plans. What you will find instead are abstract promises of “freedom”—from Earth, from international regulation, from gravity, and even from death, at least at the level of the species. He has not hammered out the details, because the details would destroy the perfection. But it is going to be awesome on Mars.
III. Sitting in a Tin Can
Jeff Bezos is not so sure. In fact, Bezos thinks Mars will be perfectly awful. We have sent probes to every planet in the solar system, he reasons, “and believe me, Earth is the best one. There are waterfalls and beaches and palm trees and fantastic cities and restaurants… And you’re not going to get that anywhere but Earth for a really, really long time.”  Davenport, C. (2019). The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos. PublicAffairs, p. 259.
“To my friends who want to move to Mars one day,” Bezos reports, “I say, ‘Why don’t you go live in Antarctica first for three years, and then see what you think? Because Antarctica is a garden paradise compared to Mars.”  Davenport, C. (2019). The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos. PublicAffairs, p. 258. So if Musk is happy to “fuck Earth,” Bezos is set on saving it; if Musk named his SpaceX after the place he would like to go, Bezos named Blue Origin after the place he will always be from: this “gem” of a planet called Earth.  Davenport, C. (2019). The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos. PublicAffairs, p. 259.
How, then, will Bezos restore and preserve the blueness of our origin? The beauty of our Earth? By getting us the hell off the planet. The problem, for Bezos, is energy: we are using too much of it. Given an expanding and “modernizing” human population, global-industrial humanity will reach some absolute limits within the next century. There is simply not enough fuel—whether from the ground, the wind, or even the sun as it’s accessible to earthlings—to power a whole planet’s worth of first-rate hospitals, bleeding-edge electronics, megachurches, superstores, slaughterhouses, and industrial farms. We need more energy, so we have to go to space.
More philosophically minded than Musk, Bezos pauses to consider a few objections. Efficiency will not save us, because no matter how many solar panels or LED bulbs we install, our Earth and its resources are stubbornly finite. The only earthly alternative would be to stop using so much energy, but that would require “rationing” and perhaps even “population control,” both of which Bezos finds intolerable. But the real problem with the prospect of sustainable life on Earth, he says, is that “it’s going to be dull. I want my great-great-grandchildren to be using more energy per capita than I do. And the only way they can be using more energy per capita than me is if we expand out into the solar system.”  Davenport, C. (2019). The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos. PublicAffairs, p. 260.
So the old Marxist adage is true: it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.  This dictum is usually attributed to Frederic Jameson, but some people attribute it to Slavoj Žižek. Rather than proposing an alternative to the extraction of “resources,” the relentless pursuit of profit, and the wasteful cruelty of factory farming; rather than using his prodigious intellect to solve the problem of food distribution or his prodigious fortune to seed a universal basic income (or even to pay a few dollars in federal taxes), Bezos is spending his money and time exporting the whole damned system into space. The alternative, he says, would be “stasis,” or even reversal. And Bezos wants to keep moving “forward,” so he is going to have to go up and away.
Yes, you have heard that right: giant space pods. The idea comes from Gerard O’Neill, the Princeton physicist who began proposing in the mid-1970s that all heavy industry and much of the human population be moved into space. Mines and factories would occupy asteroids and the Moon, while residence, recreation, and commerce would take place in giant cylindrical tubes, rotating to simulate gravity and positioned at “Lagrange points” to maintain a steady orbit. Having attended O’Neill’s lectures in college, Bezos remains a devotee. “This is Maui on its best day, all year long,” he promises. “No rain, no storms, no earthquakes.”  Bezos, J. (2019). Going to Space to Benefit Earth. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQ98hGUe6FM&t=203s In our climate-controlled Edens, we would have everything we love on Earth, like air, trees, birds, and beaches, but nothing we hate—O’Neill infamously promised we would finally be free of mosquitos. And in the meantime, Mother Earth would get a long-overdue nap.
With all heavy industry and a good deal of humanity relocated off-planet, the Earth could be zoned for light industry, some residence, and recreation. In short, Earth would become a planetary park—a great vacation spot, a lovely place to go to college.
Meanwhile, out in space, humans would get to play as many video games, have as many kids, and eat as much red meat as they would like, powered by limitless energy. According to Bezos’s calculations, an O’Neill-hacked solar system could in principle support one trillion human beings. “That’s a thousand Mozarts,” he marvels; “A thousand Einsteins. What a cool civilization that would be.”  Bezos, J. (2019). Going to Space to Benefit Earth. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQ98hGUe6FM&t=203s
So these are our two utopias: “fuck Earth and occupy Mars” versus “save Earth by drilling the universe.”
And the public is getting excited. As off-handedly “anti-corporate” as your average middle-class American may profess to be, we quite like our fast cars and same-day deliveries, especially if they make us think we are doing something virtuous. As one college newspaper puts it, Elon Musk and Tesla are “saving the planet by being awesome.”  Roberge, J. (2020). Elon Musk and Tesla: Saving the Planet by Being Awesome. The Villanovan. http://www.villanovan.com/opinion/elon-musk-and-tesla-saving-the-planet-by-being-awesome/article_cf82b6d4-47bc-11ea-aa69-8b8a9ecb878a.html And as Franklin Foer reports in the Atlantic, Americans express “greater confidence” in Amazon.com than in “virtually any other American institution,” including the military.  Foer, F. (2019). Jeff Bezos’s Master Plan. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/11/what-jeff-bezos-wants/598363/ Order a three-pack of airtight canisters and you get, the next day, a three-pack of airtight canisters. Figure out how to open the doors of a Tesla and that thing will get you two hundred miles away on one charge while accelerating like a dream, stopping on a dime, recommending local restaurants, and entertaining your passengers with fart jokes and video games. Bezos and Musk have built companies that work. Why not trust their visions of our future in space?
Of course, both these visions are a long way off. So far, no one has been to Mars, no one has mined an asteroid or built a rotating space cylinder, and it has been half a century since anyone walked on the Moon. But in the meantime, the NewSpaceniks are already making a total mess. Musk has filled his allotted altitude in low earth orbit with so many Starlink satellites that he is edging into the territory allocated to Amazon.  Roulette, J. (2021). Elon Musk’s shot at Amazon flares months long fight over billionaires’ orbital real estate. The Verge. https://www.theverge.com/2021/1/27/22251127/elon-musk-bezos-amazon-billionaires-satellites-space Astronomers and space ecologists keep warning that between dead satellites, live satellites, paint chips, lost tools, shrapnel, old cameras, and the International Space Station, there is just too much stuff up there. At speeds of 18.000 miles per hour (29.000 kilometers per hour), the collision of anything with anything else is disastrous, and despite our steady ability to produce this deadly litter, we have absolutely no way to clean it up. (The most promising idea so far, which failed spectacularly the one time it was tested, is that we might be able to snag some passing garbage with a harpoon. A harpoon.)
The scene in space is total chaos, and yet Bezos, Musk, and a growing cadre of smaller-time astropreneurs continue unfazed, promising thousands more satellites, suborbital tourism, orbital tourism, private space stations, space hotels, and kazillion-dollar asteroids, all as means to our beautiful future in space. The road to utopia is paved, this time, with towering egos and careening space junk, and the promised landscape is infinite. Call it a pantopia: not so much a nowhere as an everywhere, for a select, horrifically wealthy few.
The question is, do we have the courage to unmask this messianic delusion? To give up on the dream of some cosmic-capitalist paradise and break our enchantment with what climate activist Greta Thunberg calls “fairy tales of eternal economic growth”?  https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1357958217712742 What if, instead of asking how the universe might belong to us, we were to ask how we might belong to the universe?