From Our Archives, the Origins of Tech People Loving the Idea of Going to Space

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Earlier this week, Jeff Bezos, the soon-to-be-ex-CEO of Amazon and the richest man in the world, said he would be blasting himself into space. Okay! Sure. Also, why? But mainly: Go for it. The new, brawny Bezos will be on board the inaugural flight of his space company: Blue Origin. He will spend three minutes in outer space without a pilot.

Bezos is not alone in being into space shit. Other ultra wealthy tech folk like it too. Elon Musk is trying to make rockets. Richard Branson is into private space rockets. And the new king of SPACS, Chamath Palihapitiya, convinced people to buy into Branson’s Virgin Galactic space tourism business with a bravado pitch about the stars. (Branson is reportedly fighting Bezos to get to space faster.)

This might lead you to a simple question: What’s up with these dudes and space?

I think Fred Turner, a professor at Stanford and the author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, carves a helpful path to perhaps understand the space-obsessed tech rich. In his essay “Machine Politics” for Harper’s (and, yeah, in that mouthful of a book title, too), Turner shows the unique blend of Bay Area aesthetics and Silicon Valley money. The acid and hippies found capitalism and started Apple, in a way.

For techies, this gives a conscious capitalism sheen—an against-the-grain edge—to the big money. That’s been hard to grasp in recent years as it’s become more obvious that tech is just money stacking itself up in a new way. Still, the ethos is important. If you’re a tech lord, and you buy the narrative—disruptor!—you can see how space travel and using your massive wealth do it would be a fixation.

Because you know who loved space shit too? Timothy Leary.

In a fascinating piece from one of our 1976 issues, writer Don Goldsmith follows Leary as the acid-making man talks about blasting himself up into the stars for space colonization. Here’s how Leary is introduced:

The man’s name is Timothy Leary. Berkeley made him a Ph.D., Harvard a professor, LSD an ex-professor, the media a devil, the government a convict, prison a space-oriented philosopher.

This piece is sort of Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test as Apollo 11 and then devolves into listing why people want to go to space. It’s cool. It also offers a dive into the hippie culture that would come to affect the tech folk directly. Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog—a text that would underpin the fantasy of scientific utopianism that fueled Silicon Valley’s mythos—is mentioned as one of the people pushing for space colonization along with Leary.

Go read the whole piece about Goldsmith attending a meeting in Berkeley for the Network, Leary’s space mission—named “Starseed Seminar #1: S.M.I.2L.E. (S.M.I.2L.E. = Space Migration+ Intelligence Increase+Life Extension)”—here.

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