According to Jeff Bezos, Tuesday was the best day of his life. With millions of people watching, he and a crew of three others, including his brother, Mark Bezos, and the youngest and oldest people to ever fly to space, Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old student from the Netherlands, and 82-year-old Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk, entered the capsule of a phallic-looking rocket, created by Blue Origin, the billionaire’s rocket company, and took off from a launch site in Van Horn, Texas, eventually traveling at Mach 3 as they headed about 66 miles above the planet. For Bezos, every aspect of the flight was a success. Once in space, the crew unbuckled their safety harnesses and experienced weightlessness before the roughly four-minute free fall back to Earth. “You have a very happy crew up here,” Bezos said from inside the capsule as it descended, gently setting down in a made-for-TV plume of dust on the Texas desert floor. “Best. Day. Ever,” Bezos proclaimed from the pod.
On Twitter, the bastion of Earthly opinion, people were largely unimpressed by Tuesday’s successful launch. “Watching NASA takeoffs when I was a kid was such a moment of national pride and unity,” wrote Matthew Miller, an MSNBC analyst. “Having them replaced by billionaire vanity flights is one of the more depressing touchstones of this era.” Nina Turner, the former Ohio state senator now running for Congress, aptly noted, “Breaking News: Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, has enough disposable income to finance a multi billion dollar vacation to space but still won’t pay his taxes.” And the left-wing magazine Jacobin offered this harsh viewpoint in the days leading up to the flight: “Billionaires like Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk are parasites, worse than socially useless. But they’ve got to justify their existence somehow, so, like five-year-olds, they’re now pretending to be astronauts.”
While I agree that Bezos is largely an out-of-touch billionaire, I think the immediate and total criticism of him being only that—contrasted with NASA takeoffs being watched with national pride—not only misses the point, but is also a bit of revisionist history. A Harris poll in 1967 found that 54% of Americans did not think it was worth the cost to put a man into space; only a third thought it was important. Most people thought the money used for the space program would be better spent helping people here on Earth. That poll wasn’t just a fluke at the time. About a decade later, in 1979, only 41% of Americans supported the space program, according to an NBC–AP poll. It’s only now that people look back at those launches with more pride than almost any other time in American history. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, 72% of Americans said the U.S. must remain a world leader in space exploration; 80% said they thought the space station was a good investment for the country. The difference now, of course, is it’s a billionaire leading the way. The U.S. Space Shuttle program was suspended for more than two years in 2003 after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster killed seven astronauts upon reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, and it eventually shut down in 2011.
After Tuesday’s successful flight, Bezos can now use the achievement of that made-for-TV moment to gain government contracts, to hire engineering talent who might otherwise have gone into a different industry, and to grow Blue Origin in a manner that will pave the way for the U.S. to continue to dominate in space travel. “What we’re really trying to do is build reusable space vehicles. It’s the only way to build a road to space, and we need to build a road to space so that our children can build the future,” Bezos told CNBC’s Morgan Brennan. The same is true for Musk. (Branson, the third man competing in the billionaire space race, just comes across as a dweeb.) While the cost of a private flight to space might seem utterly ridiculous now, that cost, like every technology during its inception, will continue to come down, allowing for breakthroughs generations from now that we can’t even imagine today, and hopefully with the ideals of the United States, not another country, driving them.
For the past couple of years, we’ve all been looking at the privatized space race as a vanity competition between a handful of billionaires who seem to have mastered the art of getting negative attention, while bickering with one another over whose rocket is bigger. And while that is true, there is also a larger space race taking place that’s more akin to the U.S. versus the USSR, with massive consequences for the future of this planet. That race, which the U.S. is on the verge of losing, is with the government of China.
While the U.S. and Russia fought it out in the 1950s to be the first to space (Russia won that one), and then the first to the moon (the U.S. obviously won that one), the Chinese government, under Mao Zedong, scrambled to join the race too. It repeatedly missed projected launch dates, and, years later, had a mission end in catastrophe. Now, under Xi Jinping, China is pouring resources into its space programs, stating that it plans to set up a base on the moon (which would be a first) and eventually send a mission to Mars. The country sees major industrial development opportunities in space, with huge economic upsides.
A 2019 report released by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency outlined that China is rapidly building anti-satellite technologies in space and enhancing electronic warfare capabilities that could put the peaceful use of international space at risk. Imagine a scenario where the Chinese government destroys U.S. satellites, or those of other perceived adversaries. There’s also the more peaceful, and potentially farther-reaching scenario, wherein China beats every other nation to the moon and Mars and sets up permanent space stations, becoming the de facto leader there. It may sound crazy, but it’s entirely plausible.
Entrepreneurs I’ve spoken with say that thinking of space as just a hobby for billionaires is missing its potential. It would be akin to thinking shipping was a dumb idea hundreds of years ago, without the foresight to realize that it would eventually be the most important aspect of the global economy. There’s also the aspect of Bezos’s hope that if we continue to move further into space, we can save Earth from the disasters of climate change. “We live on this beautiful planet. You can’t imagine how thin the atmosphere is when you see it from space. We live in it, and it looks so big. It feels like this atmosphere is huge and we can disregard it and treat it poorly. When you get up there and you see it, you see how tiny it is and how fragile it is,” Bezos said Tuesday. “We need to take all heavy industry, all polluting industry, and move it into space. And keep Earth as this beautiful gem of a planet that it is.”
Are people wrong to criticize Bezos and Musk and Branson? Absolutely not. As ProPublica uncovered last month, Bezos and Musk have barely paid any taxes in years, and yet they have both recently held the mantle of the richest person on Earth. Their philanthropic endeavors are paltry, at best. And when it comes to Bezos, one of the reasons inequality is so extreme today is a direct result of the way he has chosen to run his business. Every ounce of denunciation tossed at these men is deserved. While Bezos took a 10-minute flight to space, about 38 million Americans were living below the poverty line, with more than a half a million people in the country homeless.
When CNN’s Rachel Crane asked Bezos what he thought of “a chorus of critics saying that these flights to space are just joyrides for the wealthy” and that the richest man on Earth should be solving problems that are here, Bezos essentially agreed. “I say they’re largely right. We have to do both. We have lots of problems here and now on Earth and we need to work on those, and we always need to look to the future.” One can only hope that the space launch this week, where Bezos had the rare opportunity to see the Earth from more than 60 miles above, gave him a different perspective on what needs doing, and a sense of responsibility to do it with the same drive he devotes to his rocket company. Though it might be a while before that realization sets in.
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