Don’t Be Impressed with the Space Billionaires

Our history of space travel is a catalog of humanity’s greatest achievements.

When the Soviets put a satellite in orbit, that was a first. Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard touched space 60 years ago, our first-ever star voyagers. NASA – a publicly funded agency staffed with the best and brightest American minds – put Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong on the moon, and got them home safe. Judith Love Cohen’s abort guidance system saved the Apollo 13 crew. JFK, LBJ, and even Richard Nixon could put the fight for the stars in terms that made the heart soar. 

Back then, only the combined might of a global superpower was enough to achieve space travel. It was, necessarily, a massive coordinated effort that the entire country had some small hand in accomplishing. 

Fast forward a few decades and Jeff Bezos, some rich guy, is going to space. He blasted off from Texas toward the stars this morning in a mission made possible thanks to great personal investments by the Amazon Founder into his Blue Origin space program. The rocket’s capsule, fittingly dubbed “New Shepard” is essentially doing the same thing NASA’s Mercury did decades prior – popping into space and barreling back to earth. But this isn’t a “first” in any sense – Bezos was beaten in the billionaire space race (a putrid concept) by Virgin Galactic CEO Richard Branson, the first high net worth individual beyond the atmosphere in July of 2021. Whoopty doo. 

When you look at the ledger, what we’ve done together eclipses these latest stunts completely. Nobody should be impressed that we’re moving backward. 

Today’s flight is not a triumph of our species, it’s a recalibration of what is possible away from grand human achievements, toward rehash and homage. 

Our collective advances have made so much more possible, yet as wealth trickles upward, the benefits of greater capability and productivity are increasingly channeled into whims and wants of the .01%. It’s been reported that a seat alongside Bezos on the New Shepard was auctioned off for $28,000,000. We’re not just spectators to a historic event, we’re watching our planet, and our universe, become a playground for the rich. 

Nobody should be impressed with Jeff Bezos’ commitment to human achievement – he’s more like a space leech than an astronaut. As ProPublica documented, billionaires like Bezos use sleazy accounting tricks to pay essentially no taxes while the rest of us are expected to shoulder the burden of society. It’s criminal, at least it would be if the IRS bothered to audit the wealthy (or had the funding to do so!), or if the law was remotely fair. 

It’s no wonder these modern robber barons think they can get away with whatever they want back on Earth. If the rest of us acted like Jeff Bezos and cared so little about everyone else, there wouldn’t be money for elementary schools or roads or taking care of the elderly, let alone a colossal program like NASA. 

People like Jeff Bezos aren’t pushing the envelope, they’re holding the rest of us back, hoovering up resources that could be harnessed for the next social, political, or scientific breakthrough for their exotic vacations. 

Today might be about many things: a televised battle to corner an exclusive vacation market, sky-high luxury available to the small group of big money adventurers, perhaps an escape plan for when the frustration over inequality grows too threatening for a bunker in New Zealand. Maybe Bezos and Branson have dreamed about this since they were kids. Bully for them! And no one else, really. 

As the media covers today’s launch, you can expect the tone to be awe-inspiring. Sure, the flight was an impressive spectacle, something we can all appreciate. But we know that whatever is going on here is not as impressive as it used to be, and it’s certainly not something we can all share. There are only six seats on the New Shepard for a reason.

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