UPDATE (July 11, 2021, 12:15 p.m. ET): This piece has been updated to reflect that Richard Branson reached space on his Virgin Galactic rocket Sunday.
The space race used to be between superpowers, but now it’s between the super-rich and everyone else. Last month, Jeff Bezos announced that soon after leaving behind the role of CEO of Amazon, he’d be leaving Earth, too.
Beware that while the risks of staying on Earth grow every day, those of going into space are too great for insurance companies to cover.
Bezos is taking a seat on his own space shuttle, New Shepard, on July 20. He has certainly earned it, in the sense that he has paid for it by starting the aerospace company, Blue Origin, that will bring him into outer space. Though he’s set to achieve his boyhood dream, he won’t be the first billionaire who has funded his own launch of a few fleeting moments in space.
Bezos’ boast was a siren song to fellow billionaires, and soon after going public with his plan in June, Richard Branson stepped in to say that more than a week before Bezos, he would be boarding his own Virgin Galactic VSS Unity for a spaceflight. On Sunday, he indeed became the first billionaire to win the space race. At this point, it would not be outside the realm of Elon Musk stunts to tweet that he’s also aboard his SpaceX Dragon.
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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. If you want to go even farther, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule will have a glass-domed observation deck available for the passengers it’s shuttling to the International Space Station for an eight-day stay at $55 million a piece. Just beware that while the risks of staying on Earth grow every day, those of going into space are too great for insurance companies to cover.
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.
It was federal tax dollars that were the foundation of NASA. The collective coffers of the country put a man on the moon, and a half-billion people watched it on TV. The astronauts did not go in the stead of the rest of the planet; they were pioneers on behalf of the rest of the population.
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.
This unifying commitment is all the more significant given that each came from a wildly different background that leant unique meaning to their missions.
Peggy Whitson grew up on a farm in Iowa and decided to become an astronaut when she was 9 years old after seeing the moon landing on TV. She has broken many records, including being the first woman to command the space station, and for a long while she had spent more time in space than anyone else.
Mae Jemison topped her accomplishments of graduating from Cornell’s medical school and studying dance at the Ailey School by enrolling in NASA’s astronaut program after being inspired by Sally Ride and Guion Bluford. Jemison was the first African American woman in space and spent her first flight conducting biomedical experiments.
Leland Melvin was twice sidelined by the NFL for injuries, so he went to work at NASA as an engineer and ended up an astronaut. Among his many accomplishments in space was delivering a science laboratory to the International Space Station.
Speaking in the same New York Italian accent as some of my relatives, Mike Massimino told me how a summer job at NASA eventually led to him becoming an astronaut. While he helped upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope, he may be best known for ordering a pizza from space.
As dissimilar and unexpected as their paths are, they all experienced something in common: a life-altering epiphany about the unity of the universe once they got to see the stars up close and a calling to change the world they returned to for the better.
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. In fact, their privilege has put them at such odds with Earth’s inhabitants that many don’t want them to come back, epiphany-equipped or not. A petition that implores, “Do not allow Jeff Bezos to return to Earth,” has over 150,000 signatures.
While those wealthy enough to build spacecraft can certainly be as starry-eyed as the rest of us, it’s unsettling to watch them flex the power to leave the planet, particularly in such troubled times.