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Jeff Bezos, wearing a cowboy hat, walks across a platform to board the New Shepard suborbital vehicle on his July flight. (credit: Blue Origin)

The problem with space cowboys


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The “space race” is a good thing. Why? Private-sector competition spurs innovation creating new jobs, substantial price cuts, and progress. Yes, but who is competing? The promise of new jobs to achieve what and based upon whose vision?

Space cowboys are using the stars as if it were the American West. Regular folks are forced to watch but unable to participate

Like you, I’ve been keeping up with the space cowboys, or rodeo clowns, and observing as their shenanigans unfold. Showcasing the space community to the world should be a good thing. Allowing space to be used as an arena to showcase the “2021 Billionaires Sky-Carnival” featuring exclusion and competition has resulted in a global roast with a side of mass mockery. As a benched participant on the sidelines, seeing it play out in this manner is about as inspiring as the behemoth mountain of dishes after Thanksgiving dinner. For one, even though the rich-guy antics receive media coverage, the sentiment is largely unfavorable and damaging to the community as a whole. How so? The negative perception of space shapes culture, instills bias, and informs priorities. Just take a look at social media and the late-night TV shows to see that space cowboys, or rodeo clowns, are a punchline, not a goal of the American people. Why? Citizens are frustrated about what’s going on in space and have good reason to be.

In the California Gold Rush, anyone with grit and determination could pack up their wagon with the hopes to find gold. That possibility was open to everyone. Getting your hands dirty and working hard to achieve success is part of the American dream. It’s a dream that we were raised on and exported around the world. We want to believe that the American dream of success through hard work and perseverance is still possible today.

Space cowboys are using the stars as if it were the American West. Regular folks are forced to watch but unable to participate. Why? For one, we lack access to investment capital to establish space companies of our own. While the barriers to participation are nuanced, one is very clear. The only private-sector contenders in the “space race” today are Billionaires with a capital B. If there were truly equal access to space, as it were in the American West, legitimate cowboys would blow these contenders out of the ring faster than a bucking bronc at the stockyards on a Friday night rodeo.

The American public is reassured that space is an arena fostering unity and cooperation. Why is that not what we are seeing? You all are familiar with the Overview Effect. We are being sold the idea of space, in that feel-good It’s a Small World kind of way but are witnessing a handful of rich guys jostling for position like bloodthirsty contenders pre-IPO. Is the Overview Effect more powerful in theory, or being exploited as a marketing tool? One thing is for sure: it’s not a sentiment that is being put into practice today.

The commitment to protecting our planet and its inhabitants should take precedence over a handful of grown-men playing dress-up and fantasizing about colonizing virgin planets.

While recognizing the innovation provided by private-sector competition and the necessity of maintaining military power, a counterbalance to space as a zero-sum arena for single-goal human achievements is necessary. The space community is both capable of and would benefit from a counterbalance. If there were another perspective about how we interact with space, what would that be? If we aren’t aware of that voice, what’s it buried under and how do we help it to be heard?

I am not alone in the aim to save our planet, not escape from it. I suspect that a different approach to space would emphasize a couple of things: the importance of responsible stewardship of space, utilizing space for the primary purposes of expanding our scientific knowledge, studying and addressing climate and enhancing resources here on Earth. The commitment to protecting our planet and its inhabitants should take precedence over a handful of grown-men playing dress-up and fantasizing about colonizing virgin planets.

Make-believe cowboys in the stars vying for primacy doesn’t do us all any good. You can keep your low-wage no-benefits independent contractor jobs. We want in on the dream. Not to help you build yours but rather to create one of our own. Stop using space, a global common, as if it were your backyard rodeo. No one elected you all cowboys in chief. If we did have a vote, we wouldn’t pick you.

Last, putting on a cowboy hat doesn’t make you a cowboy. Being a true cowboy is earned. Real cowboys have callused hands from roping, riding, and managing rough terrain. Cowboys are held in high regard because of their high character and grit. They are honest, fair and have integrity. All the money in the world can’t buy those qualities, no matter how many hats you put on.


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