Our society has been dreaming about space travel for more than a century. Storytellers of all sorts have come up with fantastic tales of going beyond our planet’s atmosphere. Some of those stories go just a short ways up into Earth orbit, or to the Moon, or other planets of our solar system. Others go far beyond, using technologies that blur the line between science and fantasy. But those stories generally have one thing in common: once the capability is built, space travel in some form is comparatively accessible and even mundane to some degree.
That’s not the case in the real world. But 2021 has been a remarkable year, because it’s marked the first flights of all-civilian crews launched on commercial rockets. Until this summer, Human spaceflight was the sole domain of national governments and their space agencies. Just in the past three months, we’ve seen multiple suborbital flights and even a multi-day orbital flight. These flights, launched by three different corporations, are each the culmination of literally decades of research, development, experimentation, failures, and ultimately successes. They’re a manifestation of Human ingenuity and determination.
But I (and many other people, it seems) feel very conflicted about these flights. Space flight is not cheap, of course. Building and testing and launching a rocket understandably costs billions of dollars. And so only some of the richest people in the world can fund that development. It doesn’t help that the men who are behind these corporations are unlikable billionaires. Seriously, pick from Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or Richard Branson—any of them would feel like a natural choice to play the villain of a James Bond movie.
Today’s Blue Origin flight featuring William Shatner as one of the passengers is emblematic of this issue. Right now, these flights are literally ego trips: the people who ride aboard are rich or famous passengers who pay immense sums of money for the privilege. (Yes, there are some passengers who were invited as guests, but they are the fig-leaf exceptions, not the rule.) The average person still has no hope of experiencing zero-g or of peering out a window to take in the whole planet below. And that’s not likely to change any time soon.
The rational part of my brain realizes this is totally unsurprising, maybe even normal. Considering the enormous expense to design and build these rockets, the funding has to come from somewhere—and in a capitalist economy, that means charging money. We’re in a stage of spaceflight development that is rarely explored in popular science fiction: the part where access to space is still limited, and thus only available to a few. Even the Star Trek universe probably developed in a similar way; before First Contact, the development of technology like the impulse engine and artificial gravity probably took enormous resources and weren’t available equally at first. Passage on a DY-100 transport was probably pretty expensive!
In a way, William Shatner is one of the best people to get to go to space right now, because he embodies both sides of this dilemma. He’s an egotistical celebrity who got to take his trip because of his wealth and fame. But he’s also the man who played Captain Kirk, a character who embodies our collective desire to explore and expand. Shatner as much as anyone understands the ideals of Star Trek and how they can relate to the world today. He clearly treated his brief trip as more than just a thrill ride (in contrast to some of his fellow passengers, apparently), he seemed to be genuinely affected by what he experienced.
There are many other problems that need to be solved in our society today. But we’re smart enough that we can go to space and work on those problems at home. I’m glad that people are working to make space travel more accessible. But these endeavors also deserve extraordinary scrutiny to ensure that space doesn’t become a playground for the rich, because travel to space must become mundane and accessible for everyone—just like in so many of our dreams.