In Washington, DC, on May 9, Jeff Bezos introduced his vision for humanity’s future trek to space. Attention should be paid.
A Physicist’s Vision, Vindicated
Bezos, of course, is the founder and CEO of Amazon, one of the largest and hard-charging-est companies on the planet. Even after his costly divorce, Bezos is still the richest man in the world. In other words, if he puts his mind to do something new, it’s best to think twice before betting against him.
Yet interestingly, his new idea for space is actually an old idea — old, at least, by space standards. The Amazon man seeks to vindicate the vision of Princeton physicist Gerard K. O’Neill (1927–1992), who envisioned building giant space cylinders to be inhabited by thousands, maybe millions, of people.
O’Neill’s signature contribution to space-faring was that his cylinders would rotate, thus creating G-forces or artificial gravity. And since the lack of gravity in space is a serious human health concern — the ill-effects of weightlessness continue to be cataloged, and even small celestial bodies such as the moon and Mars lack sufficient gravity — O’Neill argued that his cylinders were actually better for human habitation.
Back in the 1970s, when the NASA space program had real momentum — the U.S. put 12 astronauts on the moon from 1969-1972 — O’Neill’s ideas had considerable appeal; in 1976, the professor published a well-received book, The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space.
Yet by the end of the decade, enthusiasm for space had cooled, as problems on earth — and costs of space endeavors — continued only to mount.
Indeed, by that time, a new idea was taking hold: Instead of going outward, to space, we would go inward, to cyberspace. In those years, the breakthroughs seemed to be coming in micro-electronics — Microsoft was founded in 1975, Apple in 1976 — not macro-rocketry. Indeed, O’Neill himself became involved in the shift; late in his life, he was connected to various communications ventures, including one that would prove to be a forerunner of the Global Positioning System (GPS). GPS is based, of course, on orbiting satellites, and yet its greatest benefits are here on earth; indeed, they can be found in the palm of one’s hand, in the form of a smartphone.
It’s that sort of human-scaled convenience, as well as profitability, that has absorbed the energies of most tech geniuses, as well as geeky entrepreneurs, over the last three decades. Yes, it’s the Internet, not space venturing, that has created so many billion-dollar — even trillion-dollar — companies, including Amazon.
Yet even so, the dream of trekking to outer space has never died. Not only does Bezos feel the lure, but so have many other tech titans, including the late Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, as well as Elon Musk, James Cameron, and Richard Branson. In fact, the chiefs of Google once even started a company dedicated to mining asteroids.
Furthermore, Uncle Sam never really left the space biz. Although NASA has been downsized considerably since its Apollo glory days, it still spends $21 billion a year. The Trump administration has asked for an additional $1.6 billion next year so that the U.S. can put an astronaut on the moon by 2024. And this time, as Vice President Mike Pence tweeted on May 14, “We’ll be there to stay.”
Yet for the moment, it’s Bezos who is most in the news.
The Once and Future Dream
Watching Bezos’ May 9 presentation about space journeying, Virgil thought back to a similar-looking presentation about space — one that was fictional. That was the scene, set in the year 2023, featuring actor Guy Pearce, shot for Ridley Scott’s 2012 sci-fi movie, Prometheus. Pearce plays a tech tycoon who boldly promises to bend the future of space. (Oddly enough, the scene was not included in the original film, although it can be found on YouTube.)
Yet even so, the similarities between the two scenes are startling: Both feature a corporate tycoon of the early 21st century, dressed in a gray business suit, speaking in a cool and yet emphatic manner, declaring big plans for the rest of the century and beyond.
In the movie clip, the Pearce character invokes the ideas of the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, thus proving he has the will to transcend the meager boundaries of human norms. As for Bezos, he stayed away from Nietzsche, and yet in his talk, he put down some of his intellectual cards — cards that show him to be a man with ideas sharply at odds with the prevailing ethos of Washington, DC.
Bezos declared — as stage graphics repeated and reinforced his words — that the U.S. and the world face a stark choice: on the one hand, “stasis and rationing,” and on the other, “dynamism and growth.” Most Americans, of course, would much prefer growth, and yet they might not know that Bezos was citing, near verbatim, the “dynamism” vs. “stasis” duality used by the well-known libertarian author, Virginia Postrel, in her influential 1998 book The Future and Its Enemies.
Hmm. Bezos citing a hardcore libertarian? What about all the liberal, non-libertarian, thinking of his employees at the newspaper he owns, the Washington Post? Where is the emphasis on liberal goals — such as expanded social welfare programs, heightened victimology, and double-downed diversity — all championed, daily, by the Post? In his talk, Bezos uttered nary a word about any of those progressive goals.
Not surprisingly, in the days since Bezos’ talk, liberals at the Post have offered no criticism of their boss; they do, after all, know who puts the avocado on their toast. And yet, other MSM liberals, not so constrained, have been noisily attacking Bezos. Here is a revealing sample headline from NBC News: “Jeff Bezos’ ‘O’Neill colony’ dreams ignore the plight of millions living on Earth now.”
Indeed, Bezos is so non-liberal that he talks about genius, real genius, and why we need more of it. Speaking as grandly as only a centi-billionaire can, he said on the 9th that he hopes for a trillion (not a typo) humans in space, thereby yielding up “a thousand Einsteins” and “a thousand Mozarts.” Ah, there Bezos goes again, ignoring liberal sensitivities; libs don’t like to hear anyone singling out two dead white European males for praise. (In fact, Bezos has often invoked those two great men.)
So we can see: The real Jeff Bezos doesn’t agree with the sort of liberalism pushed by the Post. And in fact, the real Bezos once contemplated locating Amazon on an Indian reservation so as to beat sales taxes, and Amazon has never paid its fair share to support Post-beloved Big Government. Indeed, just this year, we learned that, in 2017 and 2018, Amazon piled up $11.2 billion in profits and yet paid zero federal income tax.
Yet even if he doesn’t agree with its liberal ideology, Bezos still views the Post as valuable. It is, after all, a prestige collectible; not every fat cat owns the national capital’s leading newspaper. Thus the Post provides Bezos with a solid footprint in Powertown. Indeed, one Bezos critic, President Donald Trump, has accused the tycoon of using the paper as his “chief lobbyist” and “propaganda machine,” all to advance his own corporate interests.
Yet on May 9, we were reminded that Bezos’ passions far transcend Beltway politics.
The Siren Song of the Cylinders
We might ask: If O’Neill’s idea of space cylinders came and went in the ’70s, why should it be due for a revival today?
There are, after all, still plenty of problems with the cylinder concept. For one thing, it’s colossally expensive. O’Neill’s idea was that the cylinders would be five miles in diameter and 20 miles long; for purposes of comparison, the International Space Station, which is so expensive today as to be barely viable, is a mere 239 feet by 356 feet.
So could an O’Neill cylinder, 3,000 times larger, really be doable? And even if it could be built, could it be maintained in a space environment, where radiation, solar flares, and space junk — to say nothing of the occasional asteroid — would all pose grave dangers?
In fact, by any reckoning, it would be vastly easier to build a new habitat on the high seas, or at the bottom of the ocean, or on the South Pole — or even in a lighter-than-air aircraft, such as a dirigible or zeppelin. That is, space travel is just fantastically expensive as well as dangerous.
Indeed, given the on-the-edge nature of life in space, we can dispense with the idea that O’Neill cylinders would be much of a frolicking playland. Yes, it’s possible that there could be fun, even ecstasy, in space, and yet, for the most part, stern discipline would be needed for the sake of survival. No space commander, human or otherwise, could allow rowdy or stoned passengers to go wandering around the cylinder, checking out, say, the airlock. And if you think that the rules on guns and recycling are onerous here on earth, well, in terms of space, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
To provide perspective, we might take note of the relentless discipline that is the rule for other kinds of craft in risky environments right here on earth, such as submarines and airplanes. Anyone who doesn’t take the work seriously — including the endless rote of training, drilling, and more training — is soon an ex-submariner or ex-pilot.
In other words, the crew of a spaceship, including an O’Neill cylinder, would start to resemble the hardened types who populate Robert Heinlein’s 1959 sci-fi novel, Starship Troopers. Heinlein’s famous work has no shortage of tech imagination, and yet the author, himself a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, took seriously the envisioning of a society that could actually handle challenging operations in space. And to that end, the novel is mostly about training, motivation, and tough discipline — including the revival of corporal punishments, such as flogging.
So a Bezos-built space cylinder might have room for some joy-riding, and it might even boast some luxury compartments, in which plutocrats and potentates could do who-knows-what. And yet, for the most part, it would have to be a tight ship. That is, for the sake of safety, such enjoyments would have to be situated within a rigorous context, including rigorous protections against, say, blackmail and hostage-taking. To put that another way, the hedonistic joy of space will be for the few, not the many.
And yet still, there’s something epochally cool about space voyaging and exploring, and in the minds of big-picture builders and doers, that prospect transcends just a space orgy or two. That is, if one wants to fool around, there are a lot easier places to do it than space.
Instead, space offers something different. Space offers the hope to be remembered as a visionary pathfinder for the universe, and that hope seems to loom large in the minds of today’s tech lords. After all, past explorers prove just how grand exploration can be.
Indeed, it’s hard to think of any human figure in history who had more enduring impact on the world than the long-ago explorer Christopher Columbus. Moreover, other great explorers — Hernán Cortés in the 16th century, Henry Hudson in the 17th century, Captain Cook in the 18th century, Lewis & Clark in the 19th century, Neil Armstrong in the 20th century — rank up there, too, in the annals of history.
All those men, of course, were the opposite of instant-gratification pleasure-seekers; they worked hard and sacrificed much — including, some of them, their lives — to earn their place in the historical pantheon.
So today, with the earth well mapped, there’s only space, the final frontier, beckoning to billionaires and others with big egos. Bezos is a man who can afford anything, and yet he hasn’t had the experience of doing something and seeing something that’s truly new. At least not yet.
Obviously, Bezos knows how hard it will be to build a space cylinder, and yet he figures it’s worth the effort, because his children, or grandchildren, will be able to see the completion of one or more cylinders. Or, who knows, maybe Bezos has some sort of plan to see his future creation with his own immortalized eyes.
Just One Thing: The Need for Defense in Space
Yet even if all the technical and financial issues of space cylinders can be mastered, there’s still another set of issues: political.
Here, Virgil doesn’t mean just matters of crime and punishment, or tricky legal questions of ownership, or liability, or free speech, or gender roles aboard the cylinder.
Nope, the biggest issue is even starker and more elemental: surviving in the dangerous human environment of space.
Human environment? Is that a way to describe space? Really? Yes.
We can observe: Whatever Bezos does in space, he won’t be the only one doing it. Other tycoons, other companies, other countries — they’re either already in space, or will be there soon enough. And the presence of humans will mean that all the human ills of the earth — including, but not limited to, greed, envy, stupidity, and bloodlust — will find their way into the airless beyond.
In other words, space cylinders will have to be not only maintained but also defended. After all, already, anti-satellite warfare is a real and dangerous thing, and it’s getting more real and dangerous with each passing year. And what further new weapons and tactics are coming? Of course, you can use your imagination, knowing that the bad guys are using theirs as well.
In other words, anything in space will have to possess a plan for its own defense. As earthly history shows, the mere fact that one means no harm and comes in peace is no protection against bandits, extortionists, plunderers, and conquerors.
Yet it’s unlikely that Bezos has a technological strategy for defending his space assets from terrorists, let alone hostile governments. After all, how could he ever hope to “harden” anything, militarily, without becoming the military itself? And militaries, of course, are beyond even Bezos’ budget.
What’s likely, therefore, is that Bezos assumes that a government — for the time being, at least, the U.S. government — will protect him. The implicit line of defense: If you mess with Bezos, you’re messing with Uncle Sam. Such a politico-military guarantee wouldn’t protect a space cylinder against every bad contingency, but it would thwart most of them.
Far-sighted lawmakers are already thinking through these scenarios. On May 15, Sen. Ted Cruz, chairman of the space subcommittee within the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, took up this exact point as he argued on behalf of another Trump administration space initiative, a formally constituted Space Force:
Since the ancient Greeks first put to sea, nations have recognized the necessity of naval forces and maintaining a superior capability to protect waterborne travel and commerce from bad actors. Pirates threaten the open seas, and the same is possible in space. In this same way, I believe we too must now recognize the necessity of a Space Force to defend the nation and to protect space commerce and civil space exploration.
Cruz has it exactly right: Just as the U.S. has always needed a Navy to protect its maritime interests, so it now needs a Space Force to protect its space interests. In 2018, one expert estimated the annual value of U.S. space commerce to be some $150 billion — and that total doesn’t include the fact that GPS and other satellite communications are woven into every aspect of our lives.
So we can see: If the U.S. Space Force comes into existence, it would provide an extra level of confidence for Bezos, as well as for others who wish to launch new space ventures. Indeed, if most people around the world believe that today’s Pentagon does a good job of upholding international order, space-farers can hope that an enlarged Pentagon same will prove true for the interplanetary order.
So it’s little wonder that in his recent talk, Bezos praised the Trump administration’s plan to return to the moon, saying, “I love this. It’s the right thing to do.” Evidently, in addition to selling rockets to NASA, Bezos would like the comfort of knowing that “USA” is a visible presence in space. And so Bezos probably supports Trump’s idea of a Space Force, albeit quietly, lest he rile up Democrats.
To be sure, there’s still the question of how Bezos and the Washington Post — sometimes known as the “Bezos Post” — get along with Trump himself. The answer, as we mentioned earlier: the relationship is not good.
And yet Bezos has to be thinking to himself that even under the “worst” of circumstances, Trump will only be in office for another five-and-a-half years. After that, he’ll still own the Post, as well as all the influence that it carries, to say nothing of his personal wealth and corporate power.
Of course, as the issue of space defense ripens, someone will point out that if Bezos expects the U.S. government to defend his space ventures, then maybe Amazon — for a change — should be paying federal taxes.
Amazon to pay taxes? That’s an argument, of course, that Bezos won’t readily accept — at least he hasn’t so far. And it’s possible, with the ongoing muscle of the Post, that maybe he’ll never have to pay up. (Amazon is hardly alone, of course, among tech companies beating the IRS.)
Maybe Americans will take comfort in the thought that they’re helping Bezos, and other tech titans, go to space, even if they themselves don’t get any benefit. Or maybe they won’t like that idea at all — the idea that American strategic assets are making space safe for plutocracy. And so maybe a big political fight will erupt, leading to an unknown outcome. About the only thing we can know in advance is the slant that the Post will put on the story.
Yes, going to space is cool. And maybe O’Neill cylinders are even cooler. And yet going to space as a united country — with every American feeling that he or she has a stake in the effort — is the coolest thing of all.