The space race is now a mega-rich man’s game. Elon Musk announced last week that his SpaceX company had booked its first paying space tourist, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, for a 2023 flight around the moon. (See Technology.) Maezawa says he’ll take up to eight artists along on the journey, which he hopes will “inspire the dreamer in all of us.” Whether Maezawa, 42, will actually blast off in five years is far from clear. The $5 billion spaceship that the online entrepreneur is supposed to hop aboard hasn’t been built yet, and Musk’s electric car company, Tesla, is notorious for production delays. Still, eager not to be outdone in the Rich Guy Space Race, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced just days later that his Blue Origin venture would become in fact the first private company to a shoot a human into space. It is planning to launch a manned spaceflight sometime next year.
Space exploration is just one area where billionaire disrupters are taking on roles once dominated by the government. Several tech titans have set their sights on remaking education: Bezos is planning to use his fortune to set up a network of free preschools in low-income communities, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is pumping cash into efforts that he says will help children “learn 100 times more than we learn today.” Meanwhile, Musk hopes to revolutionize public transport with his Hyperloop system of superfast underground trains. These ambitious plans to push humanity forward are noble and perhaps a touch naïve, but they’re also an indictment of our paralyzed democracy. Not so long ago, our elected leaders were able to work together to build the Interstate Highway System and send Americans to the moon. Now Congress can’t even agree on how to fund basic government programs, from food stamps to border security to scientific research. Of course, there’s just one problem with handing so much power to billionaires: We can’t vote them out.