On July 1st, English billionaire Richard Branson became the first to fly into space in his own spacecraft. Branson went aboard VSS Unity in hopes of establishing his company, Virgin Galactic, as the “world’s first commercial spaceline.” In fact, Virgin Galactic is set to take paying customers to the edge of space in the next year. Even Elon Musk bought a ticket.
Despite Branson’s assurance that his trip was not at all a result of rivalry with fellow billionaires, the timing of the launch tells a different story: one of competition among the world’s richest men. Nine days later, Bezos made a similar trip on his rocket, New Shepard. Bezo’s company Blue Origin, like Virgin Galactic, also aims to commercialize space.
It goes without saying that space exploration is one of humankind’s greatest achievements. But Branson and Bezo’s selling of joyrides falls far from any historical feats that come to mind. Decades ago, the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, flew twice as high as Branson’s Virgin Galactic. In other words, there is nothing technologically revolutionary about what Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are doing. Their ventures are “a rich kid’s playtime,” as put by astronomer and Deputy Executive Director of the Royal Astronomical Society Dr. Robert Massey.
What we are witnessing can be described as another “space race,” one among unbelievably influential individuals rather than nations. Many see Musk as the most viable contender for this “race.” He is the owner of SpaceX, a private space exploration company that works with NASA and was the first private company to fly astronauts into orbit. Musk is less focused on space tourism than his counterparts. He is determined to explore and someday set up a colony on Mars.
Some of the richest men in the world like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson are pouring billions into commercializing and colonizing space for the elite, while populations back on Earth struggle with the disease, poverty, and the effects of climate change. This is yet another strict reminder that inequality is quite literally reaching its boiling point. Looking beyond the “wow” factor, this “race to space” is more immature and wasteful than it is innovative. A “mine is better than yours” dynamic would be a better way of putting it.
Yes, this sounds cliche, but money isn’t being used where it is desperately needed. Billionaires are not working for the “common good.” However, Bezos and Branson seem to claim that is the case. By making space tourism more common, the two assure that their companies Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are helping humanity gain a new perspective; that is if you are the part of humanity that can pay for a $200,000 ticket on Branson’s rocket or win the two tickets Branson offers as charity.
Branson remarked, “Imagine a world where people of all ages, all backgrounds from anywhere, of any gender, or any ethnicity, have equal access to space. And they will, in turn, I think, inspire us back here on Earth.” I would argue that prioritizing issues on Earth is a more accessible way of helping people than making it easier for them to fly into space, or in Musk’s case, escape to Mars. So no, Musk, Bezos, and Branson are not helping all of mankind. They’re helping the ultra-wealthy.
Further, the richest are currently responsible for a great portion of our world’s emissions, and opening up a new space tourism industry poses the possibility of them drastically increasing their carbon footprint. According to the Guardian, commercializing space travel may result in a sharp increase in rocket launches. One launch “produces up to 300 tons of carbon dioxide into the upper atmosphere” that remains for two to three years. An increase in launches poses a risk to stratosphere ozone, which senior policy adviser at the New Zealand Space Agency Jessica Dallas describes as the “most immediately concerning” effect of vehicle launches.
Musk, Bezos, and Branson’s egos have ungrounded them from the reality of Earth, and it’s hard to see them coming back down. Yes, it’s nice to dream of living on the red planet. But the fast-approaching deterioration of our blue planet and the ever-increasing gap between the haves and have nots are surely more deserving of our resources.