Musk is in the space freight business, hauling materials and equipment from earth to sky, a kind of twenty-first century Cornelius Vanderbilt in the making. Elsewhere, rich men lust jealously for space now that Earth's challenges have proven tiresome. John Carmack, the co-founder of iD software and co-creator of Doom started Armadillo Aerospace in 2000, eyeing space tourism via a sub-orbital commercial craft. Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos helped found another private spaceflight company, Blue Origin, in the same year. And of course, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson established Virgin Galactic in 2004, to provide sub-orbital space tourism as well as orbital satellite launch. In 2008, Richard Garriott, the role-playing game creator and son of American Skylab astronaut Owen K. Garriott, paid Space Adventures a reported $30 million to be flown via Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS. Just four years later, Branson’s Virgin Galactic was selling tickets for sub-orbital rides on SpaceshipTwo for a mere $200,000. Ashton Kutcher and Katy Perry have already signed up. TMZ Galactic can’t be far behind.
In grade school during the early days of the Shuttle program, I remember writing and illustrating “astronaut” as a response to the dreaded “what do you want to be when you grow up” prompt. I didn’t really want to be an astronaut, but I knew that unlike my first inclination, garbage collector, it would be accepted as a suitably ambitious aspiration.
Space, once a place for governments and dreamers who would really just be civil servants, has become a playground for the hyper-affluent. Owen Garriott was an engineer from Oklahoma and a U.S. Naval Officer selected for life science service in space. Richard Garriott was a lucky rich guy with connections. We don't have flying cars, but we have a billionaire who sells electric cars to millionaires. We don’t have space vacations, but we have another billionaire who will take you on a magic carpet ride for two-hundred large. Today, a kid who says “I want to be an astronaut” is really just saying “I want to be rich.” Isn’t that what everyone wants? All of today's dreams are dreams of wealth.
The official mission of the final Space Shuttle, STS-135, reads more like a joke from The Office than a science fictional fantasy: “Space Shuttle Atlantis is carrying the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module to deliver supplies, logistics and spare parts to the International Space Station.” Among its tasks: the delivery of a new tank for a urine recycling system, and the removal of a malfunctioning space sewage pump. If only I’d known in 1982 that astronaut and garbage collector would turn out to be such similar jobs.
Despite what you read in comic books, even Stark Industries has to bend metal and mold plastic. Elon Musk will take over the task of shipping sewage pumps and waste processing units and air filtration systems to the ISS. Richard Branson will sell Justin Bieber and Mitt Romney tickets past the Kármán line. Eventually, inevitably, Mark Zuckerberg will slip a bill to the surly bonds of earth and start his own space enterprise, just to keep up with the Rothschilds. Quiet maybe-billionaire Craig Newmark will expand his eponymous service to taxi unwanted minibikes and toasters and other worldly junk into space, the Final Landfill.