Capitalism in space: Facebook has now apparently abandoned a project to launch its own communications satellites and instead has made a deal with Amazon whereby it sold its satellite division to the Bezos-founded company, where they joined Amazon’s Kuiper communications satellite project.
Over the past year, Amazon has revealed details about Project Kuiper’s antenna design, selected United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket for the initial satellite launches, and acquired still more office space for Kuiper employees in Redmond.
According to The Information, the employees who came to Kuiper from Facebook in April are based in the Los Angeles area. They are said to include physicists as well as optical, prototyping, mechanical and software engineers who have worked on aeronautical systems and wireless networks. One of the employees, Jin Bains, was formerly Facebook’s head of Southern California connectivity and is now described on his LinkedIn page as a director on the Project Kuiper team.
The Information reported that Amazon paid Facebook as part of the deal for the employee switchover, but did not provide further details. “It’s not unheard of for big companies to buy groups of employees from one another, just as they often buy small startups to beef up staff in various parts of their business,” The Information’s Sarah Krouse and Sylvia Varnham O’Regan explained. [emphasis mine]
This deal reveals a number of immediate facts, as well as one long term troubling one. First, it indicates as mentioned Facebook’s abandonment of its space ambitions.
Second, it suggests that Amazon might finally be recognizing that the people running its Kuiper satellite project are taking far too long to get it off the ground. Though proposed approximately the same time as SpaceX’s Starlink constellation, Kuiper remains unlaunched with no launches even scheduled, while SpaceX has more than 1,500 satellites in orbit, has been providing test service to customers in selected areas, and is about to become operational globally. This difference is achievement might be explained by this fact: The person Amazon hired to run its Kuiper project was someone Elon Musk fired in 2018 from his Starlink project because that person was taking too long to get it built and launched.
The new hires suggest that Amazon might have finally recognized this issue.
Finally, the long term troubling fact.
The highlighted quote — where Facebook “sold” its employees to Amazon — reminds me too much of the early Virginia colony described in my new history, Conscious Choice, about the founding of slavery in that colony. There, wealthy plantation owners distorted the custom of indentured servitude, changing it from simply a model to train the young into a tool for getting years of unpaid labor from poor immigrants. The result was that in a few decades it became culturally acceptable to treat humans like cattle, to be bought and sold. This in turn made the buying and selling of slaves more acceptable, so that slavery soon became common in Virginia and throughout the south.
These “sold” Facebook employees obviously are not unpaid workers. They also have the right to get other jobs. However, that two big corporations now think they can treat they employees as mere “assets” to be bought and sold is quite troubling. These big companies have great power. The more their management wields that power thoughtlessly and with abandon, the more likely they will abuse it. We see that happening already in how the management at these same corporations have begun to clamp down on speech they do not like, silencing and blacklisting it.
What if these big corporations begin to run operations in space? Employees there will have far fewer options to escape ill treatment. What if the management of these corporations view their space employees as mere assets to be bought and sold, as needed? With no legal framework established to protect those employees rights due to the Outer Space Treaty’s limitations on sovereignty, I can easily see this as a path to tyranny, slavery, and serfdom. And we might be seeing the first signs of it now on Earth in this Facebook/Amazon deal.