An exploration of the political economy of space travel.
Humanity and Space
Humans are astronomers. For as far back as we can comprehend human life, we see evidence our species has looked at the stars. We mapped the sky before we mapped the earth. Then we used the sky to navigate the earth.
Ever since we knew what stars are, some among us have wanted to go to them. Ancient epics such as the Indian poem of Ramayana or the Greek satire True History, recount fantastical tales of ships that can travel in space and voyages to the Moon. For much of the last century, science fiction literature and media expresses our deepest desire to reach space.
In 1957, the human race crossed its greatest milestone yet by launching an artificial craft into space; Sputnik 1. To our best knowledge, this was the first time any life on Earth has left our atmosphere. Since then we've launched thousands of satellites, hundreds of astronauts, and dozens of interplanetary probes. By all evidence we are on the cusp of being a spacefaring species!
Capitalism and Space Travel
To put it bluntly; space travel and capitalism are incompatible. Putting aside the fact capitalism is incapable of meeting our longterm needs, it cannot take us into space in the longterm either. The reason for this is because capitalism is motivated by profit, that is, revenue must exceed investment. Space travel has hitherto never been able to deliver that; the best we have are a handful of private ventures that have consumed significantly more government funds than they have ever or will ever yield in profit.
It's telling that the first country on earth to explore space was the Soviet Union; an economic model that rejected the market system on ideological grounds. All successful American innovations in space travel likewise have decidedly been accomplished in the public sector. Even when ideology isn't the basis behind this rejection of the profit motive, we can recognize that it only makes sense that the private sector cannot lead the way into the cosmos in a way that makes economic sense.
Solving the Puzzle
Let me propose that even if capitalism could make regular and safe space travel economically viable (it couldn't), it still wouldn't be desirable. Capitalism makes mass industry economically viable and it does so by creating misery, poverty, and waste. Comfortable housing is economically viable in capitalism, at the cost of mass homelessness. Even if it were possible to do this with space travel, there's no reason to believe it wouldn't simply export those problems into space.
So what is the alternative? Humanity has made its greatest accomplishments through collective action. Nothing (that we know of) is more powerful than people in the plural. If we want to become a spacefaring civilization, we have to do it. One person or private entity cannot do it. One country couldn't even do it. Even at the height of the "space age" it took international cooperation to get it done. It wouldn't have been possible without it!
We often joke about "fully-automated luxury space-communism." It conjures up images of a future like Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek; a post-capitalist humanity where Earth joins an intergalactic federation and explores space like we once explored the ocean. A universe where we have overcome our differences and conquered our more worst impulses.
But what if that's possible? If we can imagine new ways of living we can do it. Capitalism started as an idea in people's heads. Not to sound idealistic, but if we can make an entire political economy made up of imaginary value, driven by a completely abstract concept like profit, and use it to justify breathtaking amounts of material human suffering, we can remake our society. I'm not talking about warp drives, teleporters, or space federations; I'm talking about humanity right now.
We can always do better than capitalism. I am optimistic that we will spread to the stars. We're already on the cusp of being a spacefaring civilization. We've come a long way in six decades and we have a long way yet to go. With us we can bring billions of years of evolution and hundreds of thousands of years of human development. We can leave capitalism and the state behind.