By BEN R. WILLIAMS
Aside from the wonderful folks in the English department, one of my favorite college professors was a fellow we’ll call Dr. Sandbar.
I only had one class with Dr. Sandbar — I think it was some sort of government or social studies class. And I’m not entirely sure how Dr. Sandbar got roped into teaching this course because he was the college’s choir director. But despite the fact that singing never came up in the class, he did a fantastic job.
Dr. Sandbar’s teaching style followed the Socratic method. He would ask the class a seemingly straightforward question. After several people answered the question, he would then ask follow-up questions and raise counterpoints, until eventually at least one student’s passionate argument violently fell apart like a washing machine with a cinderblock in the drum.
Of course, Socrates was eventually executed, and I know a number of my fellow students probably wished Dr. Sandbar would down a glass of hemlock. Some of my classmates even threatened to complain to the administration about Dr. Sandbar, though I don’t know whether or not they went through with it. There’s nothing worse than going to college and having to think critically and open your mind to new ideas.
I always enjoyed Dr. Sandbar’s classes, however, partly because we were usually on the same wavelength, and partly because it was always entertaining.
One day in class, Dr. Sandbar asked the class the following question: Should we continue spending money on NASA? He asked everyone who thought we should to raise their hand.
Out of about 30 students, I was one of two who raised a hand.
He called on the other students first and asked them why they felt we shouldn’t fund NASA. The responses were generally that we had enough problems at home to worry about. We should be spending money on finding cures for diseases (hey, remember when curing disease was something most people agreed on?), or helping veterans, or providing homes for the homeless, or other good things that are (or at least were) difficult to argue against.
Then he called on me and asked why I felt we should spend money on the space program.
I don’t remember exactly how I phrased my response — I’m sure it wasn’t all that eloquent — but I remember the gist of what I said.
We do need to address problems at home, I said, but the space program is crucially important. From a practical standpoint, investing in the space program has caused incredible technological advancements that we take advantage of every day, everything from faster and smaller computers to cutting-edge medical technology.
But additionally, I said, if there is a meaning to life, then I believe it’s to better understand the world around us. As a wise man once said, space is the final frontier, and if we stop looking outward to better understand our universe and just give up on expanding our horizons, then what’s the point of all this?
Dr. Sandbar liked my answer.
About 15 years later, I stand by my answer. I remain a big proponent of the space program and I think we need to vastly increase NASA’s funding.
I mention all of this backstory to say the following:
I don’t much care for Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson.
Right now, these three billionaires are competing in a space race. Branson was the first to go to space, although he really only went about 50 miles up and the absolute lowest point of low Earth orbit is about 150 miles up. As a wit on Twitter put it, he spent millions to go to “upper sky.”
Meanwhile, as I write this, former Amazon CEO and Lex Luthor impersonator Jeff Bezos just flew to upper sky in a deeply unfortunate-looking rocket, while Tesla CEO Elon Musk is planning to actually go into orbit.
Ultimately, all three of these men are spending millions upon millions of dollars to do something that’s fairly pointless, unless you’re deeply invested in their individual egos.
While I find Elon Musk to be one of the most annoying and tone-deaf individuals on the planet, I’ll give him credit for Tesla and SpaceX; as much as I love antique gas guzzlers, electric vehicles are the future, and Musk’s SpaceX has made some remarkable breakthroughs in space flight and satellite technology.
If you were to ask Branson, Bezos, and Musk why they all decided to fly into space at roughly the same time, they would probably say that they’re providing a proof of concept for a future industry in which regular folks (albeit very wealthy ones) jet up to outer space for a vacation. For decades now, people have been saying that space tourism is the future, and that future seems closer than ever before.
Maybe that’s true, but the timing couldn’t possibly be worse. The cost of living is quickly rising. The global chip shortage has made it all but impossible to buy a cheap used car. The housing market has exploded, and wealthy individuals across the country are snapping up real estate for tens of thousands of dollars more than it’s worth in order to rent it to people who will never afford to own a house. It’s getting harder and harder for regular folks to make ends meet, and there’s no relief in sight.
And against a backdrop of millions of Americans struggling just to survive, three billionaires have decided to spend tens of millions of dollars to take a quick jaunt up to space. Even the most debauched Roman Emperor would consider that bad optics.
What’s wonderful about NASA is that it’s for all of us. When Neil Armstrong planted a foot on the moon, he didn’t say, “That’s one small step for me.” The technology and promise of space exploration belongs to all of humanity, not specific individuals. While it may seem like a fine distinction to make, I’m concerned that the spectacle of billionaire space tourists will only serve to push people away from the wonders of the space program and embitter them rather than draw them in.
Maybe I should look up Dr. Sandbar and see what he thinks.