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Home > Legal & Financial > To infinity, and beyond

To infinity, and beyond

A new dawn for accountancy broke at the end of May, most of us were a little too preoccupied with figuring out how the world was going to work as we emerged from Covid-19 lockdowns to pay too much attention.

Two Americans climbed into a rocket, fired it up, and paid a visit to the International Space Station (ISS). Big deal. It’s 51 years now since Neil and Buzz walked on the moon, and yet more since the cold war mutual fear between the US and USSR fired the starting pistol in the race to put young men with short haircuts into orbit.

The difference this time was who was signing the cheques. The first running of the Space Race was a ruinously expensive game of one-upmanship designed, in part, to claim victory for one ideology over another, capitalism v’s communism. Capitalism won, in more ways than one.

This second iteration of the space race is capitalism vs itself. This time it is private companies, blowing a hole in their own finances to shoot for the stars. The question is why?

Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are clever chaps, founders of Paypal and Amazon respectively, they both spotted niches opened up by the rapid uptake of the internet, and made themselves eye wateringly wealthy in the process. They are both children of the space age and both had soaring schemes as boys for the expansion, and population of space and other planets, and half a century on here they are actually doing it.

SpaceX is Musk’s operation, and he seems to be winning so far. He won the race to lease the Cape Kennedy launch site, the starting point for the US Apollo missions, and it was his Falcon rocket that took the first commercial astronauts to the ISS in May. Musk has his sights set further afield though. Ultimately he wants cities on Mars as a backup Earth, he is aiming for 2050 for the first sustainable settlement on the red plant. I’m not sure I will have got around to repainting the bathroom by then. He is going to use the ISS as a base to refuel shuttle-like craft to go to Mars and use that as a base to explore further. He said in 2016 that he aims to keep the cost of a Mars trip to around $300,000 “low enough that most people in advanced economies could sell their home on Earth and move to Mars if they want,” he said, reminiscent of the great migrations from Europe to the USA in the 19th and 20th century. Meanwhile during 2020 he has been launching mini satellites into Earth orbit at the rate of 60 per fortnight, so far he has about 500, but has permission to take this to 42,000. His aim is to provide global broadband coverage to the entire planet, however remote the location.

Jeff Bezos meanwhile is a little more secretive, and currently seems to be in second place in the race. Blue Origin, his vision, first imagined while at college is for floating space colonies, we’re not talking about hunks of metal here, but cylindrical floating worlds with rivers and forests and one hell of a view. He also aims to create a permanent city on the moon, with mining and manufacturing operations to be a giant factory for his floating colonies, moving heavy industry from Earth. If we can all live floating about in space there is going to be plenty of…. well… space, allowing a massive expansion of the human population. “The solar system can support a trillion humans, and then we’d have 1,000 Mozarts, and 1,000 Einsteins. Think how incredible and dynamic that civilization will be,” Bezos said in February this year.

These visions are, it goes without saying huge, fantastical, and impossible, perhaps. Yet they are the visions that have probably occurred to every 10 year old with a book about space and a toy rocket. These two 10 year olds are both middle aged men with vast budgets and a fleet of rockets. Both of these men are astute, fiercely bright opportunists who spotted niches before anyone else, took a gamble and won big. Neither of them is an idiot, but both have billions in loose change lying about burning a hole in their pockets.

How do we view these astonishing visions? Billionaires blowing their spare cash on their 10 year old fantasies? Or have they spotted another niche? Are our kids really going to be able to sell their homes and move to Mars in 30 years?, am I destined to see out my twilight years in a floating old folks home space colony? It seems ridiculous to even consider, but you can’t rule it out either.

By Phill McCoffers