Five takes on the billionaire Space Race.
Context for the intergalactic effort to measure the size of rich dudes’ rockets.
On Sunday, billionaire Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, became one of the first commercial astronauts in history. His Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo took him just beyond the 50-mile demarcation for space where he spent about four minutes weightless. Branson and Virgin Galactic edged out billionaire competitor Jeff Bezos and his company Blue Origin, set to make their space debut next week. Meanwhile, though he hasn’t announced any plans to go to space himself, billionaire Elon Musk has been building technology for space travel for some time through his company SpaceX.
Branson’s joyride was treated as some sort of breakthrough and has been covered that way by otherwise serious people. But celebrating one small trip for a billionaire signals a serious trip for humanity. Here are five reasons why.
1) Government already did this … 60 years ago.
Alan Shepard was launched into space by the U.S. government in 1961 (a month after Yuri Gagarin was launched into space by the Soviet Union). Make no mistake, the SpaceShipTwo that took Branson and his pals to space is light years beyond what launched Shepard and Gagarin. While Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin may take credit for innovating the technology, imagine where we might have been had we never stopped investing in government space travel?
2) The carbon footprint is gigantic.
As record-breaking heat waves scorch even more temperate parts of the planet and the pandemic is barreling into its second year, it’s no wonder people with the means are looking beyond Earth. But Branson’s intergalactic hot rod has consequences on that front, too — particularly if the space tourism industry he’s foreseeing takes off.
He estimates that the carbon footprint of his 90-minute trip is the same as a jet engine traveling from Singapore to London — a 13-hour flight. But that flight usually carries hundreds of people. This one carried four. And it lacks the obvious transport utility: it didn’t take people anywhere, just to space and back. Though it’s conceivable that space travel could reduce the length of intercontinental travel and therefore the time for travel, it’s unlikely that it’ll reduce the carbon footprint.
3) We should be taxing the rich, not applauding their exploits.
If you choose to spend your billions of dollars to fly your ass to space in the middle of a pandemic, while millions of people in your country can’t afford basic healthcare and millions abroad are dying for lack of vaccines — people should legitimately ask about your morals, not applaud your exploits.
And if you can even make that choice because you pay a lower effective tax rate than the millions without healthcare in your own country, you should be paying more in taxes.
4) U.S. inequality now reaches to space.
Relatedly, it’s an absolute policy failure when billionaires made trillions of dollars during the worst public health crisis in a century while the minimum wage didn’t budge from a measly $7.25 an hour. Let it be noted that during the pandemic, billionaires got to take space jaunts while our poorest folks had to decide if they could even stay home without losing their livelihoods.
The uber-rich are literally living beyond the stratosphere.
5) Tony Starks don’t exist in the real world.
It’s hard to miss the narrative imprint of Tony Stark in this — you know, charismatic tech billionaire who, as Iron Man, figures out how to save the world … from his own weapons? The U.S. military is already moving headlong into weaponizing space through Space Force. It’s hard to see how the technology around civilian space travel doesn’t get suffused into this effort. Just don’t expect to see Musk, Bezos, or Branson saving the world with their tech anytime soon. There are no Tony Starks in the real world, nor should there be.