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Billionaires in space!

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Jul 25, 2021 6:00 am

Richard Branson floating in space! Jeff Bezos in a cowboy hat and Top Gun gear! Hopefully, Elon Musk soon mounting a Space Tesla to the stars!

What could be more inspiring for a human race desperately hoping to finally shed their masks and get back to regular buffet Sundays and Lady Gaga concerts than the sight of really, really rich white guys jetting off into orbit for a shorter period of time than the average Mandalorian episode, just so they can high-five themselves and keep Hoovering up truckloads of passive wealth?

Yes, that was last week’s spectacle as two of three of the world’s dweebiest astronauts financed their own space weekend getaways, and the world’s jaw collectively dropped.

Head of private space company Virgin Galactic Branson (wealth: approx. $4.8 billion) had his reusable rocket plane VSS Unity towed up 50,000 feet by his Eve carriers and then blasted off to reach 86 kilometers above the Earth, then hovered in space for about 10 minutes in what looked like a 12-seater headed to a private Philippine resort island.

In the video, Branson stays strapped in, looking a bit queasy but grinning from ear to ear, before joining his co-astronauts in a brief bout of weightlessness. Then it’s back to Earth safely, and the first salvo of the Private Space Travel Era has begun.

Or, as The New York Times dubs it, “the Amazonification of Space Travel.”

Next up nine days later was Bezos (wealth: approx. $206 billion), head of space company Blue Origin, who, after an expensive divorce settlement a year or so back, probably felt like he had, um, things to prove. So he launched his very penile-looking New Shepard rocket from a launch pad in Texas, where it separated from the spacecraft near the Kármán line, the most widely accepted boundary of space (about 100 kilometers above sea level) before heading back to Earth.

Bezos and his crew (including “world’s oldest astronaut” Ms. Wally Funk, and “world’s youngest,” 18-year-old Dutch student Oliver Daemen) were determined to go a bit farther, so they reached 107 kilometers before doing the float-and-return photo-op session. 

Total time from launch to capsule touchdown in Texas desert for Bezos and crew? Ten minutes.

SpaceX billioinare Musk (wealth: approx. $164 billion) is, for the moment, hanging back, but promises to launch three- or four-day trips in the near future, heading out to 300 kilometers above Earth. Better selfies there, I’ve heard.

As I looked down at the Earth — this stunning, fragile oasis, this island that has been given to us, and that has protected all life from the harshness of space — a sadness came over me, and I was hit in the gut with an undeniable, sobering contradiction.

As an historic dip into the very expensive waters of privately financed space travel, this was all very tentative. But snark aside: it is an impressive feat that we have reached a point in our history where space travel is attainable, not only through massive government spending, but by ponying up obscene personal wealth.

  Virgin Galactic’s space plane V.S.S. Unity 

(The space race has attracted much interest from Hollywood celebs as well, people who have reserved tickets either with Virgin Galactic for $250,000, including, reportedly, Leo DiCaprio, Lady Gaga, Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber; Ashton Kutcher reportedly had to cancel his ticket, because now that he’s a dad with two kids, wife Mila Kunis “doesn’t want him to go.”)

Don’t get me wrong. I do, in fact, think we live in miraculous times, in that we, as humans, are capable of processing both the fact that a variant of COVID is stealthily laying in wait, rebuilding like ISIS as it prepares to spring its next attack on the human race; and the fact that, even as poorer countries’ populations are desperately crying out for vaccines, richer countries are blithely turning away free jabs like people who’ve had way too many Alaskan king crab legs at a Vegas buffet and complain that, nah, they’re “full.”

  Jeff Bezos (center) with brother Mark and Wally Funk (right), the oldest person to travel to space, after their Blue Origin flight
from Van Horn, Texas. (Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

Or we can grapple with the notion of a handful of rich people controlling over 50 percent of the world’s wealth (Bezos’ personal wealth shot up $24 billion during the pandemic alone), who can think up nothing better to demonstrate their mastery of the planet than to hurtle themselves into orbit for a TikTok video — while we sit and watch. Yes, it is a miracle that vast, historically unprecedented wealth can be put to such midlife-crisis assuaging ends for the good of all mankind.

And, after we’ve grappled with that, let’s give an honest, un-ironic toast to the actual reality that private citizens are now equipped to shoot themselves into space!

I mean, a project that once took the resolve of a JFK, a massive American public opinion campaign, the awesome intelligence pool that is NASA, and a great deal of risk-taking US spirit, now can be achieved with the mere extra hundreds of billions lying around the coffers of tech billionaires. Praise the heavens! Ad astra!

Blue Origin still expects to begin crewed flights of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle (Photo credit: Blue Origin)

If nothing else, the billionaire space race has created some interesting super-cut juxtapositions for us to contemplate down here on Earth in this precarious time in history. We have so many (so many!) problems here, which is something people nastily griped about when NASA first spent hundreds of millions to launch the Apollo mission in 1969: Yo, how about spending some money fixing things down here first?

Killjoys!

But, Branson, Bezos and Musk would argue, they are taking a giant leap for mankind: they point to the importance of launching more satellites more cheaply, so we can have better, um, phone reception and Netflix, and take better satellite images of trouble environmental spots, predict forest fires, etc.

And Musk? Well, he reportedly thinks that colonization of other planets is the bigger picture. He might actually believe that Earth is already carving its own tombstone. 

There is one thing that I sincerely hope that Bezos, Branson and Musk share with the 553 other astronauts throughout human history who have breached the rim of space, taken a look around, and come back fundamentally changed. I hope they experience what scientists call “the overview effect”: it’s what NASA astronaut Ron Garan reportedly felt when he first gazed back at the big blue marble — Earth — that he and his crew had just left behind to venture into space:

As I looked down at the Earth — this stunning, fragile oasis, this island that has been given to us, and that has protected all life from the harshness of space — a sadness came over me, and I was hit in the gut with an undeniable, sobering contradiction.

In spite of the overwhelming beauty of this scene, serious inequity exists on the apparent paradise we have been given. I couldn’t help thinking of the nearly one billion people who don’t have clean water to drink, the countless number who go to bed hungry every night, the social injustice, conflicts, and poverty that remain pervasive across the planet.

Seeing Earth from this vantage point gave me a unique perspective — something I’ve come to call the orbital perspective. Part of this is the realization that we are all traveling together on the planet and that if we all looked at the world from that perspective we would see that nothing is impossible.

Well, we can hope that Branson and Bezos felt some of that. In between taking floating selfies.

Photo by Virgin Galactic