Space Policy: Bernie Sanders' Faulty Criticism of Elon Musk

Sen. Bernie Sanders (left) and SpaceX founder Elon Musk (Yuri Gripas, Joe Skipper/Reuters)

The Sanders-Musk feud reveals the faulty liberal view of the future of space.

Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders really wants billionaire space entrepreneur Elon Musk to stay on the ground.

“Space travel is an exciting idea, but right now we need to focus on Earth and create a progressive tax system so that children don’t go hungry, people are not homeless and all Americans have healthcare. The level of inequality in America is obscene and a threat to our democracy,” Sanders recently tweeted, responding to Musk’s Twitter pledge to make human civilization multiplanetary.

Despite space exploration’s stirring, pathbreaking history and the incredible possibilities for its future, Sanders’s views on space are increasingly common among social-justice activists and may soon control public policy — despite the math not adding up.

You could end NASA and liquidate all of SpaceX, yet barely make a dent in financing a single year of the anti-poverty budget which U.S. taxpayers have been funding since the 1960s. NASA spent $22 billion last year and SpaceX’s total value is around $75 billion. Meanwhile, the kind of government anti-poverty programs on which Sanders wants to spend Musk’s money already cost taxpayers around $393 billion a year. But even that is chump change relative to the $97 trillion agenda Sanders campaigned on.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to calculate that liquidating all of SpaceX would only fund 0.073 percent of Sanders’s proposals.

But Sanders’s anti-spaceflight fantasies might come true under a Biden administration, given the growing influence of those who believe that space exploration and social justice are incompatible. According to Pew Research, 72 percent of Americans think it is essential for the U.S. to remain a world leader in space. Yet leftist opposition to space travel could soon reign supreme at NASA, despite being out of step with public opinion and basic budgetary math.

Under President Obama, activists succeeded at shifting money away from the functional parts of NASA, like its robotic-exploration program, planetary-science programs, technological-development programs, and many future Mars missions, to areas that produce nothing tangible, such as the environmental sciences program and “outreach.” This was done all without saving any money. NASA was actually reduced to holding bake sales to try to convince lawmakers to save defunded programs.

Things briefly turned around under the last administration, which increased NASA’s budget from $19.65 billion in 2017 to $23.3 billion in 2021. Given the Left’s tendency to reflexively dismiss any policy connected to former President Trump, Biden may well slash the budget and return to the policies of the Obama years.

Furthermore, there is an ascendant movement in academia to label the pursuit of space exploration “racist.” The anti–space travel strand of critical race theory has spilled out of the ivory tower and into everyday leftist circles, prompting the Washington Post to explain “How imperialism shaped the race to the Moon” and The Nation to ask, “Is Spaceflight Colonialism?”

Woke bureaucrats inside of NASA are already using President Biden’s election to abandon plans to return to the moon and send astronauts to Mars. Their new goal is to comply with woke dogma and focus on pleasing anticolonial theorists and ethnic-studies activists rather than launching spacecraft. Renaming astronomical objects and space centers may soon take priority at NASA over scientific research and space travel.

“You could argue that the effort to colonize space is likely to involve new forms of inequality: shifts in tax revenues and administrative priorities devoted to that,” Michael Ralph, an anthropology professor at NYU, said in a quote for an article entitled “The Racist Language of Space Exploration.” He considered this distinct from “[supporting] other social institutions that benefit people like health care, education, infrastructure.”

Similarly, Kimberley McKinson, an anthropology professor at CUNY, asked, “How should Americans understand SpaceX’s goal of space colonization in a world now indelibly changed by the killing of [George] Floyd?” She elaborated that endeavors by “wealthy White men,” including Musk, “to colonize Mars and their fantasies for the future of humankind must be understood in the context of the racialized histories of colonization on Earth.”

Space terminology “tends to still be colonial: ‘colonizing Mars’ and ‘exploring’ and ‘developing,’ for example,” Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a physics professor at the University of New Hampshire, told Gizmodo. “These are deeply fraught terms that have traditionally referred to problematic behaviors by imperialists with those that we would call ‘indigenous’ and ‘people of color’ often on the receiving end of violent activities.”

The result of the Left’s anti-spaceflight views has been stagnation. NASA has not been able to send astronauts to space on its own since July 2011. Before SpaceX, the United States humiliatingly had to pay Russia $90 million dollars per American astronaut to get access to the International Space Station (ISS). It’s a sign of the decline of American expertise in space that the U.S. paid 84 percent of the cost to build the ISS in the first place, but now has to ask the Russians, our onetime space-race rivals, for a ride. The deal was not only embarrassing but also dangerous, since the Russian rockets used to transport American astronauts were built with faulty metal that has since been recalled by Moscow.

Additionally, Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin threatened to cut off American access to space, saying, “I propose that the United States delivers its astronauts to the ISS with the help of a trampoline.” Almost everything involved in the Russian space industry is run by Roscosmos — a corrupt government body that has individuals targeted by U.S. sanctions serving on its board.

Nonetheless, in a twist no doubt offensive to Sanders and his progressive ilk, Musk’s reusable rockets have resolved America’s space-access problem. SpaceX made its first commercial orbital crew launch in May 2020, transporting NASA astronauts to the ISS for a relative bargain at $55 million per head, according to NASA’s Office of the Inspector General.

Musk has demonstrated that the American private sector can do what its government cannot. The first launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket costs around $62 million while the second launch of the same booster costs only $15 million. If NASA’s public sector Space Shuttles were around today, each would cost more than $1.6 billion per launch, more than 29 times the price of a Falcon 9’s initial launch.

This is all the more impressive given that government estimates suggested developing new launch vehicles for NASA’s Space Exploration Initiative would cost as much as $500 billion and take three decades. SpaceX did the same job almost 1,700 times cheaper and about eight times faster, spending $300 million to develop the Falcon 9 in a little over four years. That’s a great example of the private sector’s ability to out-compete government bureaucracy. And exactly the kind of free-market success story that Sanders and his fellow anti-capitalists wouldn’t acknowledge if it were written in the sky.

Andrew Follett previously worked as a space and science reporter for the Daily Caller News Foundation. He has also done research for the Congressional Committee on Science, Space and Technology, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Cato Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He currently conducts research analysis for a non-profit in the D.C. area.

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