Senator Bernie Sanders is taking shots at ongoing efforts to privatize space exploration, accusing NASA of fueling competition between the billionaires behind private space ventures: Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. In an opinion piece for The Guardian, Sanders referred to NASA as an ATM and warned of a “bad science fiction movie” plot where the wealthy are gouging on profits from space resources.
Sanders has been outspoken against obnoxiously wealthy figures such as Musk and Bezos for paying less in taxes, calling for raising the tax rate in order to break up the concentration of wealth in the U.S. On Friday, Sanders called out Congress for considering what he says is essentially a $10 billion bailout for Bezos’ Blue Origin company for a second lunar lander contract. Musk’s SpaceX was awarded the first contract by NASA, but Bezos is pushing for a second contract for his company.
“At a time when over half of the people in this country live paycheck to paycheck, when more than 70 million are uninsured or underinsured and when some 600,000 Americans are homeless, should we really be providing a multibillion-dollar taxpayer bailout for Bezos to fuel his space hobby?” Sanders wrote.
The senator goes on to call the ongoing space race as one between the “two wealthiest men in America,” as opposed to the 1960's space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (not that that’s a much better dueling match) to land the first person on the Moon. However, Sanders may have been overly romanticizing the Apollo era where poverty and civil unrest also sparked disdain towards the Moon mission.
On July 15, 1969, as the Saturn V rocket sat on the launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a group of about 30 protestors gathered outside the fence carrying signs that read, “Billions for space, pennies for the hungry.”
Fast forward to today, it seems many Americans still aren’t fully on board with the idea of returning humans to the Moon. Instead, the public would rather see NASA focus on other issues such as monitoring the effects of climate change or keeping an eye out for incoming asteroids.
While Sanders does highlight the benefits space exploration could have on the human race, his opinion piece echos the sentiment of many who view space as a playground for the rich.
“Space exploration is very exciting. Its potential to improve life here on planet Earth is limitless,” Sanders writes. “But it also has the potential to make the richest people in the world incredibly richer and unimaginably more powerful.”
It doesn’t help that billionaires like Bezos are touting their wealth through mostly useless trips to space, which largely affects how the public views spaceflight. In reality, the government has not been spending that much on space exploration relative to its overall budget.
NASA’s budget in the 2020 fiscal year was $22.629 billion, which represents 0.48 percent of all U.S. government spending, according to the Planetary Society. That same year, the government spent $766.58 billion on its military.
At the end of the day, space is hella pricey and private investment does aid in the overall cost to return humans to the Moon. NASA estimates that the Artemis program will cost $86 billion by 2025. Meanwhile, the U.S. administration has made a $6.8 billion fiscal 2022 budget request for NASA to cover the return to the Moon.
But that should not allow those with extreme wealth and power to monopolize space exploration, nor get away with tax breaks because they are helping get astronauts to the Moon.
“When we take that next giant leap into space let us do it to benefit all of humanity, not to turn a handful of billionaires into trillionaires,” Sanders concludes in his opinion piece. And I think we can all agree on that.