Space money

“He’s a billionaire who sent himself into space. What did that accomplish? Imagine what he could have done here on Earth with all that money!”

I’ve been reading stuff like this all week, and I’m convinced that most of my friends have never worked for a living. Oh, they may have gone to some office job, but anyone who can’t see what

Branson (and soon, Bezos. Musk has already launched a Tesla into space, a troll feat that will probably never be topped). Branson did not go to space sitting in lawn chair with a bunch of balloons. Virgin Galactic was preceded by Virgin Airways, and in case you didn’t know, rockets, like airplanes, need thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of little electronic and mechanical components. Shafts, nuts, bolts, screws, rivets, bushings, pins, lock washers, spacers, pivots, rod ends, ball joints, and a myriad of other little fasteners are needed to hold the bigger pieces together (I know, because I make those little components).

Cowlings, rotors, wheels, brakes, supports, brackets, braces, fairings, cylinders, are just some of those things needed to make those big heavy objects fly. And then there are the more mundane thing alike windows, doors, cockpit controls, even the seats. Every single one of those bits has to be manufactured from raw material. How are they manufactured? The various metals and plastics are mined and processed into usable forms, and those forms are extruded, forged, cast, rolled, or machined into semifinished and then finish sizes. The tolerances on some of those components – the allowable variation from the average specified size – might be fine enough that only special equipment can measure it. A human hair might measure as small as 5/1000 of an inch. I routinely work to tolerances one tenth of that.

None of those components grow on trees. The equipment and machinery to make those components cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the facilities in which that equipment is housed may cost hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. By now you must have figured out that it takes a lot of people to run all this equipment; some of the castings for the engines take weeks of an entire engineering team just to design, and may take months between the time the order is placed until it hits the shop floor, after which it may be a few more months to finish all the operations, and do the final inspection. Assembling the other components into them will take even more time weeks to months, by dozens of machinists, assemblers, inspectors, transporters, crane operators, truck drivers, cleaners, and others.

Branson (and Musk and Bezos) did not simply shoot a bundle of cash into space. They, and their partners and investors, created an untold number of jobs; jobs that not only went to those who worked directly on the rockets, but also jobs in support industries like transportation, rigging, non-destructive testing, and tooling.

Branson’s jaunt is the result of hundreds of thousands of man hours – hours that were paid for. And unlike wages paid to retail workers, which are often used to purchase more products in those same stores, manufacturing and transportation wages go back into the community. That money is invisible when compared to “free” money that is just donated to a handful of people. But the creation of jobs (and the resultant training) is a lot more stable, and the establishment and growth of those businesses is ultimately of more value to the community than just handing out a few handfuls of cash.

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