In a scene out of a Kurt Vonnegut short story with a vulgar title, Sir Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and soon Elon Musk head to space for a few minutes, prompting endless memes, fact checks, controversy, criticism, and praise, but what does it really mean in the grand scheme of things?
There are few things more suited to our meme-drenched culture than the idea of billionaires in space. First, Sir Richard Branson on a Virgin Galactic Craft two weeks ago, followed by Jeff Bezos on Blue Origin last week, and soon Elon Musk on Space-X. The memes practically write themselves, whether it be Jeff Bezos as Austin Powers’ nemesis Doctor Evil, commentary on the phallic shape of the rocket, or jokes about what Amazon employees might be doing in his absence. I was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s classically vulgar science fiction short, “The Big Space Fuck,” where humanity colonizes the stars by mounting sperm, called jissum because it’s a magic word, to the top of a penis shaped rocket aimed at Andromeda.
Regardless of your personal take, it’s a topic ripe for caustic comedy served in bite size packets. We can only imagine the Musk memes coming soon. In fact, the memes and misinformation were so fast and furious, USA Today felt compelled to fact check whether or not Jeff Bezos was actually an alien reptile. I’m serious. Apparently, a video posted on YouTube on July 14 ponders whether or not Mr. Bezos is even human. The title, “I’m not sure if he is human,” speaks for itself. In the video, a woman says, “Look at that two eyes in his neck. This Jeff Bezos has got an alien in his neck.” The speaker continues to claim he’s wearing a “rubber mask on his head” and “his hands even look fake, too.” “He’s a reptilian!” she proclaims. “I don’t think he’s a human.” According to USA Today, however, “there is no evidence an alien is living in Bezos’ neck – or that the billionaire is a reptile. This video references several outlandish, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.”
To think, they say real journalism is dead these days?
Of course, it’s also a topic ripe with controversy, as nothing can happen in the year 2021 without the necessary gripes and criticism. Many progressives viewed this new billionaire space race as an opportunity to promote a wealth tax. For example, Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted, “The richest guy on Earth can launch himself into space while over half the country lives paycheck to paycheck, nearly 43 million are saddled with student debt, and child care costs force millions out of work. He can afford to pitch in so everyone else gets a chance.” Progressive firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “Yes, Amazon workers did pay for this – with lower wages, union busting, a frenzied and inhumane workplace, and delivery drivers not having health insurance during a pandemic. And Amazon customers are paying for it with Amazon abusing their market power to hurt small business.”
Others also reacted to the recent ProPublica report that found the world’s billionaires, including both Mr. Bezos and Mr. Musk, don’t pay all that much in taxes, certainly a fair topic to consider. Some noted that the Federal Government already sent people into space in the 1960’s, and despite all of their billions, Branson, Bezos, and soon Musk, are only doing what was done over 50 years ago by the public sector, implying there is no magic in the free market and private investment. Still others wondered about the impact on the environment, claiming space travel is going to wreak even more climate change havoc. A few just weren’t happy, period. Caroline Framke writing for Variety claimed watching Bezos go to space was “more depressing than inspiring.” “In just 11 minutes, the Blue Origin flight encapsulated everything wrong with billionaires buying their way into the final frontier,” she explained. “As our world quite literally burns and crumbles around us, these men pushing the limits of the planet in their (unavoidably, symbolically phallic) rocket ships, simply because they can, is less inspiring than it is completely depressing.”
Generally speaking, conservative leaning pundits were much more favorable in their thoughts. For example, John Podheretz, writing for The New York Post, declared “Forget the Democratic haters – Bezos flight represents innovation, brilliant future.” Mr. Podheretz began by noting that Bezos’ was born to a 17-year old mother and ultimately adopted by her future, Cuban immigrant husband, making it clear this was an American success story. He described how Mr. Bezos dreamed of colonizing space as a kid, placing this squarely in America as the land of hopes and dreams, and then declared, “Bezos’ flight has now solidified a future that will feature private-sector exploration of the universe beyond the Earth and sea.” Mr. Podheretz takes direct aim at the haters, claiming they’re fools, and stating that “If billions are suffering on Earth, one of the ways to help alleviate and conquer that suffering in the future is through the technological innovations that will be the offshoots and products of what Bezos and his fellow explorers are making possible today.”
Personally, I find myself somewhere in the middle of both extremes. Like most fair-minded Americans, I was disgusted by the ProPublica report and believe we need to take a close look at our tax code and how the megarich exploit loopholes like stocks-for-compensation the average person cannot. At the same time, I find a wealth-tax to be needlessly destructive if not unconstitutional and I don’t have a problem with people, however rich, spending their own money, however much, as they see fit. I also think there is truth to the claim that we broke the space barrier over 50 years ago and there’s nothing really new here. A rocket remains a rocket, albeit with better computers and a more efficient design.
Ultimately, that brings me back to what’s been bothering me about this all along: It all seems so impressively, fantastically pointless. Not uninspiring, just useless. I don’t doubt that some innovation will come from it, spending billions on technology usually produces ancillary benefits, but there’s a reason why NASA doesn’t launch rockets every day to send people past the upper atmosphere just for the fun of it: Other than the International Space Station, nothing is there except for empty space. The reason cheap air travel took off among the average consumer is simple: There were places to go and things to do. Normal people don’t fly because they like being on a plane. They fly because of the destination and what they want to see and do when they land.
Right now, however, flying to space for a scant few minutes is completely pointless. There’s literally nothing there for thousands upon thousands of miles. To be sure, Elon Musk does have the seed of a plan to send humanity to Mars. As he tells it, “You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.” His company, Space-X, has been testing a craft known as Starship that they believe could ultimately make the 237 million mile voyage. Starship purports to be the world’s most powerful and reusable rocket, capable of carting 100 tons all the way to Mars and ultimately traveling back, but even Mr. Musk himself admits the trip isn’t for everyone. In April, he told Peter Diamandis that “A bunch of people will probably die.” “It’s uncomfortable. It’s a long journey, You might not come back alive.” “We won’t make anyone go,” he added. “Volunteers only.”
Clearly, this Mission to Mars is a far cry from the promise of space tourism touted by Branson and Bezos, both of which are planning to sell tickets on their respective rockets with launches as soon as next year. Branson, for example, has formed Virgin Galactic aimed at well heeled travelers seeking a short, suborbital flight. The history of the effort hasn’t exactly been stellar, however. The original plan was to fly customers to space as early as 2007, but after a string of accidents, some of them fatal, they didn’t actually achieve an altitude of 51.4 miles above the Earth’s surface until 2018. Supposedly, they have hundreds of paying customers lined up, including celebrities like Tom Hanks, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Ashton Kutcher, and Katy Perry. “We hope to create thousands of astronauts over the next few years and bring alive their dream of seeing the majestic beauty of our planet from above, the stars in all their glory and the amazing sensation of weightlessness,” Branson said in September 2004. “The development will also allow every country in the world to have their own astronauts rather than the privileged few.”
Alas, this only brings us back to my primary concern: What then? I have little doubt they’ll sell a few thousand seats to the extremely rich, but given this is the same crowd that would spend $500,000 on a painting literally snorted by Hunter Biden that doesn’t really strike me as any kind of sustainable achievement. I don’t mean to suggest designing a rocket that can reach over 50 miles above the surface isn’t an achievement in its own right or that, if I had the funds, I wouldn’t be interested in going myself. Beyond that, however, what’s the point? Getting people into the upper atmosphere is one thing, building somewhere worth staying, something worth doing, and keeping a station in space running with both of those things is another matter entirely, all of which seems to me to be completely forgotten in the discussion.
Some might suggest that the plan is to excite people with these short trips, sell tickets, and use the funds for a next generation Space Casino, a Las Vegas of the Stars, but even then, designing, building, and staffing such a thing, assuming it was even possible to do safely, would easily take a decade or more. The novelty of these flights would surely have worn off by then, bringing us back to what then? I guess we’ll find out soon enough, but for now I have the unsettling feeling shared by some progressives that this is nothing more than a huge waste of time and money primarily for bragging rights. Granted, I’m not that passionate about it either way and a part of me will always think rockets are cool, but it would help if someone could illuminate us as to what the plan really is beyond a few minute joy ride and getting to say you’ve done it like the world’s largest bungie jump. Otherwise, that’s basically all we got.