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Why Starlink Isn’t Leaving Enough Space

image of space debris surrounding Earth

Last month, NASA submitted a five-page letter to the Federal Communications Commission outlining their concerns with SpaceX’s Starlink “mega-constellation” of satellites. Initially launched in May 2019, Starlink is a way of providing high-speed broadband internet across the world ‘beamed-down’ by a massive network of satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO). The network was originally intended to comprise 12,000 satellites, but at the end of 2019 SpaceX sought approval for an additional 30,000 satellites.

That’s a lot of satellites. But space is massive, so why be concerned?

Well, while space might be big, LEO is not. And it’s getting awfully crowded up there. Despite the fact that it’s been only 65 years since the launch of the first artificial Earth satellite, there are now more than 25,000 objects being tracked in orbit — with about 6,100 of these below 600km. The more objects in orbit, the greater the likelihood of a devastating impact. And collisions are so much worse in space. First, there are the extreme velocities in play: in order to maintain a LEO, satellites must travel at a mind-boggling speed of around 17,000mph. Second, there is the far more complicated way in which high-speed matter interacts in space. When two cars collide on Earth, there’s a brief moment of carnage before all movement comes to a halt. This is not so in LEO. Every time two objects impact, they shatter into many smaller pieces. And these pieces keep moving — exponentially increasing the likelihood of yet another collision. This “space junk cascade” is a real concern for anyone putting objects into orbit. It even has a name: the “Kessler Syndrome.” Small pieces of orbital debris might not sound like a huge problem — but at the ridiculously high speeds mentioned above, they are. A single 3mm piece of aluminum debris traveling at normal LEO orbital speed is equivalent in energy to a bowling ball traveling at 60mph.

Introducing an additional 42,000 satellites to the already crowded high-speed orbital highway greatly increases the chances of a devastating collision occurring. Indeed, that’s probably why Starlink already accounts for more than half of the close encounters in LEO. Such a collision will, at best, come at a huge financial cost and potentially create massive disruptions to worldwide communication. At worst, it may even lead to the loss of life. Just three months prior to NASA’s letter, a Chinese space station occupied by three astronauts had to take evasive action in order to avoid such a collision.

Starlink has also raised problems on the ground. The satellites are described as a “mega constellation” for a reason — they are clearly visible from the Earth’s surface. But the high speeds of these satellites mean they don’t move in concert with other constellations, and instead streak across the sky at a much faster rate. This is devastating for anyone (professional or amateur) seeking to photograph the night sky, since Starlink satellites appear as a bright line across any long-exposure astrophotography. As a result, these satellites now ‘photobomb’ a fifth of Caltech’s telescope images — images that are intended to detect (and warn us of) near-Earth orbit asteroids.

All of these problems have come about while Starlink has only around 1900 satellites (about 1/20th of its total expected network) in orbit. Things will only get worse as the network expands.

Limiting congestion in LEO is therefore good for a number of reasons: It reduces the likelihood of collisions (and the resulting potential for destruction and death); it gives us an improved ability to photograph and document the night sky; and — at its simplest — it provides all of us with a better chance of enjoying an unfettered view of the cosmos. In this way, then, an uncongested LEO is extrinsically valuable — that is, it’s valuable because it gets us other good things.

But might we have a reason to think that an unpolluted sky is also intrinsically valuable — that is, that it’s valuable in-and-of-itself, regardless of whether or not we have anything to gain from it? Such a claim might sound strange; usually, the value of nature is seen in terms of the benefits it provides to humans. We might, for example, think that a plant is valuable because it provides us with food, or that a river is valuable because it provides us with clean drinking water, or that a mountain view is valuable because it provides us with a sense of wonder and joy. But might these things still have value even if humans weren’t around to benefit from them?

A simple thought experiment can show if such an idea has weight: Suppose that in a million years, humans no longer exist. Instead, in our place is a planet flourishing with a diverse range of animal life. Suppose, then, that one day — perhaps due to some astronomical cataclysm — the earth was to wink out of existence. Would this be a bad thing? If your answer is “yes,” then it’s likely that you think nature has value beyond what it can give humans. Put another way, you believe that the natural world has intrinsic value. Those plants, rivers, and mountain views might all provide some benefit to humans, but their value goes far beyond this. And we might argue that the same is true of space.

In this way, an unfettered view of the cosmos isn’t just good because of the benefits that it brings humans. It’s also intrinsically valuable. And polluting that vista just so that we can rewatch the Baby Shark Dance a little more easily is hard to justify.

In Defense of Space Tourism for Billionaires

photograph of astronaut sitting on surface of foreign planet at dawn

It is a powerful reminder of wealth inequality. It serves no direct scientific purpose. Yet, the billionaire class’s space tourism venture is cause for celebration.

Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon and the richest man in the world, is heading to space today. Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson, also multi-billionaires, have reservations for future spaceflights. This news has largely been met with a mix of amusement and negative moral judgment. Admittedly, it seems immoral for billionaires to spend large sums on the frivolity of space tourism while, here on Earth, there is such great need for their financial resources. A “fun trip to space,” our own A.G. Holdier writes, could “fully pay two years of tuition for thirty-three students at community college.”

This kind of consequentialist argument seems fairly convincing. Between the two options, it seems like community college would surely produce the better outcome. So, it seems like the moral choice. But a closer examination of this argument yields a more complicated picture.

Within consequentialism (of which utilitarianism is the best-known version), there are both “maximizing” and “non-maximizing” consequentialists. Each view suggests a different moral verdict on space tourism for billionaires.

Let’s start with non-maximizing consequentialism. According to this view, for our actions to be morally permissible, they must simply be good enough. Imagine all the good consequences of an action, and all the bad. The world is incredibly causally complex, and our actions have consequences that ripple out for days, months, and even years. Presumably, then, every action will have some good consequences and some bad ones. Non-maximizing consequentialists say that an action is permissible if it produces more good consequences than bad ones. Or, more precisely, it claims that an action is permissible if it produces a good enough ratio of good consequences to bad ones. In other words, there’s a threshold level that divides moral actions from immoral ones, and that the goodness of the action’s consequences determines which side of the threshold the action lands. On this view, the moral question is: does billionaire space tourism fall above or below this threshold?

Most of us seem to think that, with a few exceptions, ordinary tourism is generally above the threshold of moral permissibility. After all, every dollar spent is also a dollar earned. Tourism, besides being an enjoyable and enriching experience for the tourist, also creates jobs and income, and thereby reduces poverty and raises education and healthcare outcomes. Those all seem like good consequences that often compensate for the (e.g., environmental) costs.

In similar fashion, space tourism also generates jobs and income in the growing space industry. Like traditional tourism, it has certain environmental costs (a rocket launch releases about as much CO2 as flying a Boeing 777 across the Atlantic Ocean). The consequences of space tourism are largely comparable, in other words, to other forms of tourism.

Unlike other forms of tourism, however, space tourism has a morally significant added benefit: strengthening humanity’s capacity for space exploration. Given the choice between a billionaire funding the design, manufacture, and development of spacecraft and buying another luxury beachside holiday house, the former is surely preferable. Since space tourism produces a similar (or perhaps even superior) cost/benefit ratio to traditional tourism, that suggests that space tourism has a similar moral status. And most people seem to think that moral status is permissible.

A maximizing consequentialist has a different theory about the moral permissibility of actions. According to this view, any action that fails to produce the best possible outcome is morally impermissible. A maximizing consequentialist may accept that space tourism has largely the same consequences, or perhaps even somewhat better consequences, as compared with traditional tourism. All this shows, according to the maximizing consequentialist, is that they are both immoral; there’s much better ways to spend those sums of money — sixty-six years of community college for example!

But if producing the best consequences is what morality demands, then why should we stop at community college? Sure, that seems like a better way of spending money than sending a rich guy to space (and back). But we could instead spend that $250,000 a seat in the rocket capsule costs on the most effective international aid charities and save 50-83 lives. What’s more important? Reducing the student debt burden for thirty-three (disproportionately well-educated) people in the world, or saving 50-83 people’s lives? The argument against billionaires funding space tourism, it seems, works equally well against billionaires funding community college tuition.

The maximizing consequentialist position is now beginning to look extremely morally demanding. Indeed, even donating to moderately effective charities looks morally impermissible if we have the option of donating to the most effective ones. On this view, billionaire space tourism is indeed immoral because it fails to produce the best possible consequences. But that is a fairly uninteresting conclusion, given that this view also entails that just about everything we do is immoral. And this suggests there’s nothing particularly immoral about billionaire space tourism.

Of course, consequentialist moral arguments are not the only game in town. For example, A.G. Holdier provides a non-consequentialist argument against billionaire space tourism here. According to Holdier’s Aristotelian argument, we ought to focus more closely on the moral characters of those who would spend such large sums (of their enormous wealth) on something like space tourism instead of, for example, philanthropic causes. The sort who would do this, his argument suggests, are “simply not good people.” Someone who exhibited the Aristotelian virtues of “liberality” and “magnificence” would know how to use their money in the right kinds of way and at the right kind of scale. They would not spend it on “a fleeting, personal experience” while keeping it from “others who might need it for more important matters.”

While Holdier makes a strong case that Aristotle would condemn the space billionaires’ characters, I am less confident that he would condemn their spaceflights. On Aristotle’s account, our upbringing and life experiences contribute greatly to our character development and our acquisition of the virtues. Not everyone gets the right circumstances and experiences to fully develop the virtues, but the lucky few do.

The “Overview Effect” is an oft-reported and now well-studied effect of viewing the Earth from space. It is best summarized as a profound and enduring cognitive shift. Edgar Mitchell, an Apollo 14 astronaut, described the effect of seeing Earth from space as follows:

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.”

Ronald Garan described a similar shift:

“I was really almost immediately struck with a sobering contradiction between the beauty of our planet on one hand and the unfortunate realities of life on our planet, for a significant portion of its inhabitants on the other hand.”

Yuri Gargarin, Scott Kelly and Chris Hadfield are among numerous astronauts who reported the same profound and lasting shift in their worldview upon looking back on Earth from space. Central to the effect is the sense that the world and humanity are a valuable whole that must be cared for and protected. If we really want these incredibly powerful individuals to do more for our planet and for humanity, indeed if we want their characters to improve, for them to become more virtuous, we should be cheering them all the way to their capsules — for their sake as well as for ours.

The Aristotelian Vulgarity of Billionaires in Space

photograph of Blue Origin shuttle takeoff

On July 11th, billionaire Sir Richard Branson (net worth: ≈$5,400,000,000) made history by becoming the first human to partially self-fund his own trip into space. An investor and entrepreneur who rose to fame after founding Virgin Records, Branson eventually expanded that enterprise into an airline, a passenger rail company, and — possibly in the relatively near future — a space tourism business. With a current price point of about $250,000 (and predictions that the price might nearly double), a ticket to space with Branson’s Virgin Galactic will cost roughly the same amount as the total annual grocery bill for 53 average U.S. families. A host of celebrities, including Tom Hanks (net worth: ≈$400,000,000), Lady Gaga (net worth: ≈$320,000,000), and billionaire Elon Musk (net worth: ≈$168,700,000,000) have already reserved their seats.

Recently, Carlo DaVia argued here that space exploration is, in general, morally impermissible (given the host of terrestrial problems that remain below the stratosphere). In March, Senator Bernie Sanders (net worth: ≈$1,800,000) criticized Musk (whose company is developing a space program of its own and whose personal wealth exceeds the GDP of 159 countries) for prioritizing interstellar tourism at the expense of ignoring needy families, telling the tech mogul that we should instead “focus on Earth.” (Musk’s reply was a textbook example of what DaVia calls the “Insurance” argument.) To make the kind of moral judgment Sanders is invoking, we could weigh the expected utility for “a fun trip to space” against the number of unhoused or uninsured people that the same amount of money could help. Or we could consider the duties we might have to our fellows and prioritize paying two years of tuition for thirty-three students at a community college instead of choosing to experience four minutes of weightlessness.

But Aristotle would say something different: billionaires who spend their money to take themselves to space are simply not good people.

While such a conclusion might sound similar to the other kinds of judgments mentioned above, Aristotle’s concern for human virtue (as opposed to, say, utility-maximization or respect for creaturely dignity) grounds this moral assessment in a fundamentally different, and also more basic, place. Rather than concentrating on the morality of a choice, Aristotle is persistently focused on the character of the person making that choice; insofar as your choices offer a window into your character, Aristotle believes them useful as potential evidence for a more comprehensive assessment, but it is always and only the latter that really matters when making ethical judgments.

Virtues, then, are the kinds of positive character traits that allow a human to live the best kind of life that humans qua humans can live; vices are, more or less, the opposite. Notably, Aristotle identifies that most, if not all, virtues are opposed by two vices: a deficiency and an excess. Just as the story of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ demonstrates, it is not only bad to have too little of a good thing, but it can be equally bad to have too much — real virtue, to Aristotle, is a matter of threading the needle to find the “Golden Mean” (or average) between each extreme. Consider a virtue like “courage” — when someone lacks courage, then they demonstrate the vice of “cowardice,” but when they have too much courage, they may possess the vice of “rashness.” On Aristotle’s model, learning how to live an ethical life is a matter of cultivating your habits such that you aptly demonstrate the right amount of each virtuous character trait.

In Book Four of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle identifies at least two virtuous character traits that are relevant for thinking about billionaires in space: what he calls “liberality” and “magnificence.” Both are related to how a good person spends their money, with the first relating “to the giving and taking of wealth, and especially in respect of giving.” As he explains in NE IV.1, a good/virtuous person is someone who “will give for the sake of the noble, and rightly; for he will give to the right people, the right amounts, and at the right time, with all the other qualifications that accompany right giving.” Importantly, a good person will not spend their money begrudgingly or reluctantly, but will do so “with pleasure or without pain.” To lack this virtue is to have what Aristotle calls the vice of “meanness” (or caring too much about one’s wealth such that you never spend it, even to pay for things on which it should be spent); to have this virtue in excess is to be what he calls a “prodigal” (or a person who persistently spends more money on things than they rightly deserve).

So, while it might seem like Branson, Musk and others could be exhibiting prodigality insofar as they are spending exorbitant amounts of money on a fleeting, personal experience (or, perhaps, displaying meanness by stubbornly refusing to give that money to others who might need it for more important matters), Aristotle would point out that this might not be the most relevant factor to consider. It is indeed possible for a billionaire to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on an orbital trip while also donating large sums of money to charity (Branson, in particular, is well-known for his philanthropic work), thereby complicating a simple “yes/no” judgment about a person’s character on this single metric alone.

But this is precisely where the Aristotelian virtue of magnificence becomes important. While many of the virtues that Aristotle discusses (like courage, patience, and truthfulness) are familiar to contemporary thoughts on positive character traits, others (like wittiness or shame) might sound odd to present-day ears — Aristotelian magnificence is in this second category. According to Aristotle, the virtuous person will not only give their money away in the right manner (thereby demonstrating liberality), but will also specifically spend large sums of money in a way that is artistic and in good taste. This can happen in both public and private contexts (though Aristotle primarily gives examples pertaining to the financing of public festivals in NE IV.2) — what matters is that the virtuous person displays her genuine greatness (as a specimen of humanity) by appropriately displaying her wealth (neither falling prey to the deficiency of “cheapness” or the excess of “vulgarity”). Wealthy people who lack magnificence will spend large sums of money to attract attention to themselves as wealthy people, putting on gaudy displays that are ultimately wasteful and pretentious; virtuous people will spend large sums of money wisely to appropriately benefit others and display the already-true reality of their own virtuousness.

So, when Aristotle describes the “vulgar” person as someone who “where he ought to spend much he spends little and where little, much,” he might well look to Virgin Galactic’s founder and soon-to-be customers as people lacking the kind of good taste relevant to virtuous magnificence. Such outlandish displays of extravagant wealth (such as the would-be tourist who paid a different company the non-refundable sum of $28,000,000 to ride to space, but then canceled their plans, citing “scheduling conflicts”) fail to meet Aristotle’s expectation that the magnificent person “will spend such sums for the sake of the noble” (NE IV.2).

Ultimately, this means that Aristotle can side-step debates over the relative usefulness of space travel versus philanthropy or deductive analyses of the moral obligations relevant for the ultra-wealthy to instead speak simply about how such choices reflect back upon the character of the person making them. For a contrasting example, consider MacKenzie Scott; since divorcing billionaire Jeff Bezos (net worth: $212,400,000,000) in 2019, Scott has donated over $8,500,000,000 to a wide range of charities and non-profit organizations. Asking whether or not Scott was morally required or otherwise obligated to make such donations is, on Aristotle’s view, beside the point: her choice to spend her money in noble ways is instead indicative of a good character.

Meanwhile, Scott’s ex-husband is scheduled to make a space flight of his own tomorrow.

Space: The Immoral Frontier?

photograph of starry night in the woods

Space exploration has been all over the news this year, mostly because of billionaires racing to send their rockets and egos into orbit. This cold war between geek superpowers – Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson – is a bonfire of vanities. The obvious moral critiques have been made (here, here, here, et cetera, ad nauseam caelorum). Petitions have even been signed to deny them re-entry into our atmosphere.

Despite such criticisms, the public remains strongly supportive of our collective investment in space. According to a recent C-SPAN poll, 71% of Americans think that space exploration is “necessary.” A similar Pew poll found that 72% of Americans deemed it “essential” for the United States to continue to be a leader in space exploration. In our age of polarization, this is quite a consensus. But I suspect the view is wrong. I suspect that space is the immoral frontier.

I’m not suggesting that we should pull the plug on all extraterrestrial investment. Life as we presently know it would come to a standstill without satellites. I am, however, suggesting that it is no easy task to justify our spending another pretty penny in putting a human being on the moon or Mars or any other clump of space dirt. It seems to me that before we set out for other planets, we should first learn to live sustainably on the one we presently inhabit.

Most people would probably agree with me that humanity must learn to dwell on our present planet without destroying it. But they probably also think that we – or at least the Bezos crowd – should throw some money at space exploration. Four arguments have been frequently given in support of this view. Let’s consider each in turn:

The Capabilities Argument

When JFK pitched the Apollo program to the American people, he argued: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” This is surely not the full reason for the Apollo program, but it was part of it. The mission summoned all of our capabilities as human beings. It gave us the chance to see what we as a people and species could achieve.

This argument reflects a “capability approach” to ethical theory. According to that approach, our actions are morally right to the extent to which they help us realize our human capabilities, and especially our most valuable ones. Making friends is one such valuable capability, throwing frisbees less so. JFK’s argument reflects this capability approach insofar as it holds that space exploration is worth doing because it helps us realize our most valuable capabilities as human beings. It demands that we bring out “the best of our energies and skills.”

Realizing our capabilities may very well be an important part of the good human life. But must we realize our capabilities by sending a few astronauts to space? Are there not countless other ways for us to be our best selves?

The Eco Argument

Some will say that space exploration promotes precisely the kind of environmental awareness that we need to cultivate. Sending people to space and having them share their experiences in word and image reaffirms our reverence for the planet and our responsibility to protect it. When Richard Branson held his post-flight press conference, he made this very point: “The views are breathtaking…We are so lucky to have this planet that we all live on…We’ve got to all be doing everything we can do to help this incredible planet we live on.”

The Eco Argument has a bit of history on its side. The photograph “Earthrise” (below), taken in 1968 by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, helped spark today’s environmental movement.

The photograph is undoubtedly beautiful, and its influence undoubtedly significant. But should we really keep shelling out billions for such pictures when a sunrise photo taken from Earth, at a fraction of the cost, might do comparably well? Moreover, a sense of reverence is not the only reaction that photographs like “Earthrise” provoke. As philosopher Hannah Arendt already observed in The Human Condition (1958), such photos can just as easily prompt a sense of relief that we have taken our first step “toward escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth.” And that invites laxity. If the scientists will save us, why worry? In this way space exploration produces marketing collateral that is double-edged: it can deepen our appreciation for the planet just as much as promise an escape hatch.

The Innovation Argument

A second argument is that we should invest in space exploration because it promotes technological innovation. Without NASA, we wouldn’t have LEDs, dust busters, computer mice, or baby formula. Even if a space mission fails, those invented byproducts are worth the investment.

This Innovation Argument is also nearly as old as space exploration itself. We heard it from Frank Sinatra and Willie Nelson, who got together to inform other “city dudes and country cousins” that space research has given us medical imaging technology and other life-saving devices. This is no doubt true, and we should be grateful that it is. But Frank and Willie do not give us any reason to think that space research is especially well-suited to producing technological innovation. Most of the great inventions of the past century have had absolutely zilch to do with outer space.

The argument becomes even weaker when we recognize that the technological innovations generated by space exploration are often quite difficult for poorer communities to access – and particularly so for communities of color. I can do no better than quote Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” (1970):

“I can’t pay no doctor bills.

But Whitey’s on the moon.

Ten years from now I’ll be paying still.

While Whitey’s on the moon.”

Medical imaging is life-saving, but not so much for those who can’t afford it. Might we be better off providing affordable (dare I say free?) healthcare before investing in more space gizmos?

The Insurance Argument

Back in October 2018, Elon Musk tweeted:

“About half my money is intended to help problems on Earth & half to help establish a self-sustaining city on Mars to ensure continuation of life (of all species) in case Earth gets hit by a meteor like the dinosaurs or WW3 happens & we destroy ourselves”

This, in a nutshell, is the Insurance Argument: let’s invest in space exploration so that we can be sure to have an escape hatch, just in case of a meteor strike or nuclear fallout.

This is an argument that seasoned philosophers have also offered. Brian Patrick Green, an expert in space ethics (with a forthcoming book so titled), has been making a version of this argument since at least 2015 (even on CNN). It is quite plausible. Every building has an emergency exit. Shouldn’t we have an emergency exit for the planet we live on? Just in case?

It’s a compelling line of thought – until we consider a few facts. Mars is hands-down the most hospitable planet that astronauts can reach within a lifetime of space travel. But Mars is freezing. At its balmy best, during the summer, at the equator, Mars can reach 70 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. But at night it drops to minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s little surprise that when Kara Swisher asked Diana Trujillo, a NASA flight director, if she wanted to live in outer space, Diana immediately answered “No!!!” We humans were made to live on planet Earth, and there’s no place like home.

If an asteroid slams against our planet, we will likely go the way of the majestic dinosaurs. But are we sad that velociraptors aren’t prowling the streets? I certainly am not. Should we really be sad at the prospect of our ceasing to exist? Maybe. But we probably should get used to it. The Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius was on to something:

“Life is given to no one for ownership, to all for temporary use. Look back at how the past ages of eternity before our birth are nothing to us. In this way nature holds up a mirror for us of the time that will come after our death. Does anything then seem frightening? Does it seem sad to anyone? Does it not appear more serene than all of sleep?”

We cannot escape death or extinction. So perhaps we should stop allocating resources on moonshots for the few, at the expense of the poor. And perhaps we should instead invest in those who are in greatest need. They deserve a life befitting a human being — a life of dignity in a safe community with access to education, medicine, and a chance to marvel at the starry skies above.

Saturday Night Live and the Humanization of Elon Musk

headshot photograph of elon musk in a tux

In late April of 2021, the long-running sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live announced that Elon Musk, controversial tech magnate and owner of Tesla, would be hosting the show on May 8th. This decision was a controversial one, both for viewing audiences and SNL cast members, who were given the option not to perform alongside the billionaire. Some critics were reminded of when Donald Trump hosted SNL back in 2015, a decision which the showrunners (despite their generally negative attitude towards the president during his four-year reign) never openly interrogated or expressed regret towards in later episodes. But do major pop culture institutions like SNL have an obligation to only give the spotlight to figures who meet certain ethical standards? By allowing deeply problematic figures to dress up in silly costumes and tell milquetoast jokes about themselves, are we normalizing oppressive power structures, or is all this just baseless moral frittering?

Evidence does suggest that SNL has very little impact on our perception of the rich and powerful. In 2012, Oxford University conducted a study on the impact Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impersonation had on voter perception of the vice-presidential candidate. They found that people from both ends of the political spectrum tend to come to SNL with their opinions already fully formed, and that Fey’s impression had little to no real world impact on the voting populace. With that in mind, it’s unlikely that those with a deep-seated distrust of Musk would be won over by his Wario impression.

Even so, SNL certainly made gestures towards humanizing Musk. As one critic for NPR describes,

“[Musk’s] game efforts to keep up with the show’s cast helped lighten his growing image as a callous tech bro — see the public furor when he downplayed and questioned concerns about the coronavirus last year — including a joke in one sketch about how his character once thought masks were dumb, but now believe they make sense.”

This seems a glib attempt to gloss over the very real harm done by Musk at the height of the pandemic, which includes spreading blatant misinformation about coronavirus through Twitter and providing less than adequate access to ventilators. Musk seems determined to embed himself in pop culture, which is part of a larger problem than the Oxford study can address.

In an article for The New Yorker, Naomi Fry theorizes that Musk’s attempt at relatability signals a dissolution between the categories of “mainstream” and “indie” culture. Nowadays, the hyper-wealthy share memes on Twitter, do drugs, and understand video game references. Musk may hold more wealth than the majority of the population combined, but he can also make jokes about Star Wars on Twitter. In particular, Fry argues that the controversy surrounding Musk’s surprising union with indie musician Grimes, who before dating the neo-colonialist tech giant proclaimed herself to be an “anti-imperialist,” has inspired “a nostalgia for a time when political differences translated more securely into differences of taste, and vice versa.” She asks, “What if ideological distinctions still mattered and were not so easily swept away by a leveling torrent of information and capital?”

At the end of the day, Saturday Night Live is interested in numbers, not ethics. As The Washington Post pointed out, SNL typically draws in the most viewers when the host is at the center of an ongoing controversy; Trump attracted nearly 9 million viewers, and their most highly rated episode of all time was hosted by Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, not long after her entanglement with Tonya Harding. Musk wasn’t selected for his acting chops, but for the boost in ratings that his name would provide. SNL is clearly not an indie show corrupted by the mainstream influence of Musk; this is an instant of the mainstream embracing the mainstream for mercenary ends. At the same time, our collective discomfort with Musk’s hosting gig speaks to our longing for aesthetic and political readability, our weariness with the relationship between media and capitalism.

Yes Elon, There Is Space Law

image of deep space with nebulae and bright stars

Elon Musk has spoken at great length about the details of his envisioned human colony on Mars. Among other things, he has ideas about the legal and political contours of Martian life. In terms of the form of Martian government, Musk argues for a direct democracy in which the laws can easily be repealed. His company, SpaceX, is also making a gambit at escaping not only Earth’s gravitational effects, but its legal influence as well. In the various legal terms and conditions of the company’s Starlink app, SpaceX asserts that neither Mars, nor the space between it and Earth, are governed either by the law of any earthly nation or their international laws. (Activities on the Moon, however, will be governed by California law!) Instead Mars and the starships going there will freely govern themselves according to principles of self-government. However, the reach of Musk and SpaceX exceed their grasp.

The laws of the United States govern SpaceX, which is headquartered in California and incorporated in Delaware. In turn, the United States is signatory to a series of United Nations treaties that govern the activities of signatories with respect to outer space and celestial bodies — not limited to only the Moon. As such, SpaceX is subject to the existing laws that govern extra-planetary activity. The assertion by SpaceX that it will not be bound by existing law amounts to a strange choice of law clause, by which a corporation attempts (sometimes unsuccessfully) to prevent potential plaintiffs from forcing the corporation to litigate under less favorable law, or at least make the law that will govern corporate activity more predictable. SpaceX appears to be trying to create a choice of law clause that chooses no law at all.

Being more charitable, SpaceX’s terms can be interpreted as choosing a sort of natural law stemming from generic principles of reason. However, this likely won’t help SpaceX reach legal escape velocity either. Earthly international law is largely based on international treaties, but international treaties and other legal instruments are based on jus gentium, which is natural law stemming from generic principles of reason. SpaceX, trying to choose nothing, has instead chosen exactly what it wanted to avoid.

SpaceX’s status as a corporation is a significant source of its difficulty. A corporation is a legal entity, existing only under its charter, which is governed by the law of the country where it is incorporated. There is a sense in which SpaceX extinguishes itself by disavowing the laws of the United States under which it is incorporated. If SpaceX were a sovereign nation it would be able enter treaties with other nations as it wished. So an eventual Martian colony, if independent from any terrestrial nation, could declare itself unbound by any other nations laws. But as a corporation, SpaceX is much like the colonial enclaves of England in the Americas and elsewhere. These colonies were chartered corporations created by the British Monarch. Independence and self-rule are not automatically granted to colonies, as history amply demonstrates.

The comparison to colonies is apt, as SpaceX appears to adopt the Earthlight Foundation’s contention that it is the “inalienable right” of space pioneers to do as they like, including “use any resources they find” and “own any land or space” they inhabit. The use of “inalienable,” which means not able to be taken or given away, is not likely what the Foundation wanted to say. Presumably, they envision a sort of free market exchange allowing people to exchange — i.e., give away — rights of use for resources in exchange for other considerations. More important that this pedantic point is the air of colonialism and Manifest Destiny that wafts off of the language. Space and its contents are conceptualized as resources to be exploited, valued in economic terms. This is the mentality of sentient locusts, roving the stars to deplete them, like the alien invaders in Independence Day.

The laws of earthly nations often badly fail to reign in the bad behavior of corporations. However, a self-regulated, corporate space colony is not likely to be better. Neither SpaceX nor any of the other corporate space exploration programs are able to operate wholly without oversight. That is at least some small insurance against a Martian corporate hegemony.

SpaceX and the Ethics of Space Travel

An image of faraway galaxies taken by the Hubble space telescope.

On Tuesday, February 6th, SpaceX will launch a rocket that could be the future of space tourism. If successful, it could be the rocket that takes private tourists around the moon within the year and lay the groundwork for taking humans on missions to Mars. With human expansion within sight at this level, three sets of ethical concerns arise – bioethical concerns, and political concerns both among the nations of Earth and between Earth and those that venture off-planet. Continue reading “SpaceX and the Ethics of Space Travel”