Texas start-up Intuitive Machines has achieved the first moon landing by a private firm. It’s dumping rich people’s detritus on the lunar surface — a grim sign of how the superrich plan to plant their flag beyond our own planet.

Main engine control computer designer for Intuitive Machines Dan Harrison cheers with fellow employees moments after they became the first commercial company to softly land on the Moon on February 22, 2024, in Houston, Texas. (Raquel Natalicchio / Houston Chronicle via Getty Images)

Amid tears of joy at their Houston control room, the Texas start-up Intuitive Machines successfully landed on the moon. Their uncrewed lander, known as Odysseus, hitched a ride on a SpaceX rocket last week, touching down near the moon’s south pole on Thursday. After many failed attempts by various private outfits, Intuitive Machines is the first private company to plant a free-market flag on the moon.

In the weeks leading up to launch, the company’s shares rocketed more than 300 percent. “We’ve never witnessed a publicly traded company go through a moon landing attempt” a financial analyst told CNBC. “My family took the day off from school,” one Twitter/X user tweeted. “We are going to remember where we were and who we were with on this day in history.”

As well as lots of expensive thing-a-me-scopes, the company dropped off Jeff Koon’s prized marbles. The collection known as Moon Phases are a set of 125 one-inch balls representing the eight phases of the moon in different colors and are associated with various dead rich people. “But how can I buy an expensive marble when it’s on the moon?,” I hear you cry. Well, each of Koon’s marbles corresponds to an non-fungible token (NFT) — a crypto art token sold as an entry on a blockchain. You don’t actually ever get to have one.

In January, a different US private venture crashed back to Earth. Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander had been supposed to dispose of at least seventy dead rich people (and one rich dog) on the lunar surface.

Spending billions of dollars dumping odd things in space has become a tradition among the lunar classes. Elon Musk famously sent a Tesla Roadster as the dummy payload for the 2018 Falcon Heavy test flight. Driven by a mannequin in a spacesuit dubbed “Starman,” the car is now an enduring satellite of the sun. You can track him, if you like.

The Japanese isotonic drinks company Pocari Sweat has been trying to leave a can of pop on the moon since 2014. It finally crashed with Astrobotic’s failed $100 million lander. The Japanese still plan to send a hydrogen-powered Toyota “Lunar Cruiser” up there, despite a few explosive setbacks.

Toxic Effects

Other than allowing billionaires and private companies to benefit from taxpayer-funded pipe dreams and advertising, the value of going to the moon for all mankind is not at all clear. British astronaut Tim Peake suggests the microgravity up there might one day enable exotic treatments for all sorts of diseases, albeit expensive treatments for those who can afford them. Aside from body parts, fizzy pop, and “art,” the squillion-dollar landers are packed full of instruments designed for exploring the unknown, before anyone else gets their mitts on it.

So called “NewSpace” companies are on the prowl for profitable rare earth metals, helium-3, and water. Just like the spice of Arrakis, helium-3 is being pitched as “the most precious resource in the universe.” At least it might be if someone invents a use for it. Getting large quantities of water to space is pricey. A stable reservoir will keep plebs alive while they mine for spice. And both hydrogen and oxygen can make the rocket fuel needed to search for shiny things further afield.

It all sounds very exciting. But realizing these fantasies has costs for the rest of us. According to Atrium, a big insurer for rocket-makers, early space-faring outfits should typically expect 30 percent of their launches to end in catastrophic failure. When two separate SpaceX Starship launches in Texas went south last year, toxic particulates rained down on people’s homes. Debris broke windows and caused fires that burned across Boca Chica Park, home to endangered birds and ocelot cats.

“We never gave our consent,” said one indigenous Carrizo-Comecrudo representative at a SpaceX protest in South Texas. “Yet they [SpaceX] are moving forward. It’s colonial genocide of native people and native lands.” Bekah Hinojosa of the Texas environmental group Another Gulf Is Possible claims environmental deregulation, tax breaks, and subsidies have been used by the Texas state government to lure SpaceX in. Meanwhile local indigenous communities who rely on Boca Chica’s fish to feed their families feel their customary land is being sacrificed.

For the Navajo people, the costly blunders are no bad thing. The Navajo hold the moon to be sacred, and consider fly-tipping and mining there an act of profound desecration. According to the Navajo Nation’s president Dr Buu Nygren, “The sacredness of the Moon is deeply embedded in the spirituality and heritage of many Indigenous cultures, including our own.”

Wars on Our Home Planet

Yet, despite the mess they’re making, SpaceX plans on going bigger and bigger.

SpaceX will soon be moving its monster Starship boosters from Boca Chica to the much larger Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Like the Falcon 9, SpaceX’s Starship is designed as a workhorse for frequent, repeated flights. Instead of only a couple of launches per year, Kennedy will start to resemble an airport. The same powerful and destructive super heavy-lift rockets that devastated Boca Chica will be lifting off on a near daily basis from the Florida coast.

The US military has also expressed an interest in renting Starships for their Space Force cargo and troops — delivering war to poor countries anywhere in the world within one hour.

NewSpace is scaling up US geopolitical influence behind a facade of free-market competition. In Indonesia, SpaceX has edged out Beijing to become the country’s satellite launch partner of choice. The partnership was achieved through the personal relationship Musk nurtured with outgoing Indonesian president Joko Widodo. The deal marks a rare instance of a US company making inroads in Indonesia, whose telecommunications sector is dominated by Chinese outfits offering low costs and easy financing. Some see the SpaceX deal as just a sweetener for Musk to build a new Tesla factory somewhere in Indonesia. The electric vehicle-maker has so far signed contracts worth billions for Indonesia’s nickel and other essential materials for the company’s car batteries.

As well as ripping up Indonesia’s pristine forests for luxury car bits, plans to furnish Musk with a new spaceport on the island of Biak, Papua, is fermenting anger among indigenous Warbon peoples. Clearances for the spaceport are reigniting ethnic tensions and military violence. Somewhere between 40 and 150 Papuans protesting the spaceport have been killed by the Indonesian military since the plans were originally unveiled.

Real People Are Gross

Despite the mess it makes on Earth, NewSpace investments are growing in popularity among everyman-for-himself superrich techies. For them, dealing with today’s real social and environmental problems tends to involve paying icky taxes and/or remunerating their workers fairly. Meanwhile, finding solutions for potential future problems is far more profitable. For billionaires, “longtermism” packages up this predicament beautifully.

Factoring future populations into decision-making models is just a nice, sustainable thing to do. Longtermism on the other hand, is too much of a good thing. It’s an extreme utilitarian, accelerationist ideology asking us to drastically increase rates of economic growth and technological advancement to ensure humanities’ long-term survivability as a multiplanetary species.

Meanwhile, taxes and government interventions are framed as an impediment to growth and innovation. For these longtermists, someone potentially not being born on Mars in the far distant future is in many ways far worse than someone actually dying of a preventable disease or poverty today. Mars guy is super smart and loaded. Unlike the stinky real person, Mars guy is likely to live a long happy life free of dysentery. He’s white because rich people tend to be that way.

If this all sounds a bit fascist, that’s because it is. According to Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, widely considered the founding father of longtermism, “blacks are more stupid than whites,” as he once said on an extropian community message board. “I like that sentence and think it is true.” Bostrom then used an offensive slur beginning with “N.” “It seems that there is a negative correlation in some places between intellectual achievement and fertility,” he argued. “If such selection were to operate over a long period of time, we might evolve into a less brainy but more fertile species.” He later apologized for coming across as “racist.” Musk was so committed to Bostrom’s ideas that he pledged millions of dollars to the Future of Life Institute, a longtermist organization cofounded by billionaire bitcoiner and Skype founder Jaan Tallinn.

Thanks in part to Musk, the cost of space travel has dropped considerably. A seat on a Falcon 9 rocket and an eight-day stay on the International Space Station (ISS) now only costs $82 million. Musk predicts his one-way tickets to Mars will cost somewhere between $500,000 to $1 million, a price at which he thinks “it’s highly likely that there will be a self-sustaining Martian colony.” For the poors, Musk has an indentured labor package where workers take out a loan to pay for their tickets, paying them off later by mining for spice or something.

Life on Earth will end one day (we have somewhere between one and five billion years). But the universe will also end. What then? We could just keep on running through the vacuum of a dying universe. Or, instead of living as slaves obsessing over spice and birth quotas for some odious space baron, we could take a leaf from the Navajo’s book, taking the moon for sacred, and mountains, lakes, and rivers, too. If we treat our planet right, we might just live longer and better.

I’ll admit: I wrote two versions of this article, depending on the fate of the Intuitive Machines lander. In 1969, President Richard Nixon did something similar, just in case everyone died onboard Apollo 11. But when it comes to NewSpace, there’s no need for tears or alternative endings.

Private space missions will only ever serve the billionaires, not us.

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