Sunday, Richard Branson traveled into space on his own Virgin Galactic rocket along with three other employees and two pilots. There’s a 10 minute video showing highlights of the trip below.
As you may have heard, Branson announced his trip after Jeff Bezos set a date for traveling to space with his rival spaceflight company Blue Origin. This battle of the billionaires has attracted a lot of attention and seems to have especially irritated people on the far left. A guy named Ric Geiger in Michigan started a change.org petition titled “Do not allow Jeff Bezos to return to Earth.” The petition was started as a joke but Geiger said he had a real point to make:
Geiger also felt the initial humor of the petition and its title would ultimately allow him to “reach a broader platform” to spread a more serious message about the issue of wealth inequality.
Geiger sums up the message behind the joke petition in one of the comments he posted to the petition’s landing page on Change.org. There, he writes: “Billionaires should not exist…on earth, or in space, but should they decide [to go to] the latter, they should stay there.”
Billionaires should not exist is a line you might hear from AOC or Bernie Sanders. In any case, NBC published a piece yesterday by a “tech and culture journalist” which seems to track with a similar sense of class warfare. It’s titled “Richard Branson space flight beats out Jeff Bezos. But all of humanity loses.” Let’s walk through this a bit.
The space race used to be between superpowers, but now it’s between the super-rich and everyone else.
I think you can argue that there’s a space race among billionaires, i.e. Bezos vs. Branson, but how is that a race between the rich and everyone else? And how does everyone else lose? Maybe it’ll make sense if we keep reading:
For anyone else who’s had enough of everything they can see on Earth and can afford to leave it behind, space tourism has finally arrived. For an astronomical price, you will soon be able to take a suborbital space cruise with Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic…
No doubt there’s value to all space exploration, and the knowledge and advances that come from private companies will benefit the public. But the stratification of who gets to leave the stratosphere is not another division we need.
Space tourism is certainly expensive. A seat on Branson’s Virgin Galactic costs about $250,000. But is this creating another division we don’t need? Not really. The people who have that kind of money to spend on a private spaceflight already have it. The fact that they can do something with their money that they couldn’t have in the past doesn’t change much. These same people could already afford expensive yachts that cost a lot more than a trip to space. I’m really not seeing how this makes anything worse for anyone else. The author doesn’t seem sure either.
I have not traveled to space, but I have been fortunate enough to speak several times to those who have. Their space travel wasn’t an item on a billionaire bucket list, and we’re all the better for it. In one-on-one conversations and in group discussions, a recurrent topic was the devotion they felt to the Earth and its inhabitants while they looked at them from above, and a dedication to improving life on the planet when they got back. They are now all engaged in educational efforts that relate to their time spent in space…
It seems unlikely that the billionaires who travel to space will engage in a meaningful way with the broader population afterward, in part because they’re so far removed from other people.
For me this is where things get really odd. If a trip to space is a life-changing event that focuses people on the smallness of the earth and what we all have in common then wouldn’t extending that experience to the planets wealthiest inhabitants be a good idea?
As for sharing this with others, the author seems to be arguing with herself. Democratizing space travel would seem to do more to spread the experience than sending a handful of people on government-sponsored trips and then having them talk about it. Presumably the people to take these trips, hundreds and eventually thousands of them over time, will share the story with friends and family and maybe with classrooms or on television. Word will get out if the experience is as impactful as former astronauts have claimed.
What I think this class-warfare argument misses is the big picture. At one time only the most powerful nations could send someone into space. No one could buy a ticket at any price. Now the most powerful companies can do it and the price has dropped to something the very wealthy can afford. Eventually, though it won’t be soon, the cost of this travel could drop further to the point where you don’t have to be a multi-millionaire to make the trip. That’s how capitalism works. Companies compete to offer people things they want at better and better prices. I’m quite certain that’s the whole idea, i.e. to gradually build a fleet of such ships so that this can be, if not routine, at least not something available to lots of people. I’d certainly want to go if the price dropped a zero off the end.
Update: There’s a much more upbeat analysis of the importance of this moment here. The article specifically undercuts the claims made in the NBC piece about people sharing the experience. In fact there is a charity set up for exactly this purpose:
From this moment onward, therefore, it’s likely that the majority, and very probably the vast majority, of future flights to suborbital and orbital space will be privately funded. Private human spaceflight is finally ready for takeoff.
“I absolutely believe this is that moment,” Rachel Lyons, executive director of Space for Humanity, told Ars.
Businessman and space investor Dylan Taylor founded the philanthropic organization in 2017 to expand access to space. Space for Humanity plans to sponsor people from all over the world to go to space, experience the overview effect, and return to Earth to share it with their communities. “We’re working to seed people around the world who have had this experience,” Lyons said…
The Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin spacecrafts are the first step toward the democratization of space. After his flight Sunday, Branson said he was donating two seats to Space for Humanity.
Hopefully, we’re just getting started.