Ever since COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns started easing up, billionaires have been eager to spread their wings. Last month, then-Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced he was going to suborbital space in a Blue Origin vehicle two weeks after his last day on the job. Virgin Galactic CEO Richard Branson saw an opening and announced he would beat Bezos by 9 days and take flight on his company's spaceplane on July 11.
On Sunday, Branson, along with two pilots and three other passengers, took off on the VSS Unity and soared up 86 kilometers for a few minutes before returning to Earth. Virgin made a big deal out of this flight, releasing a company promo video with the tagline, "If we can do this, imagine what else we can do," and many celebrated Branson's space travel as being an important step for humanity—except it wasn’t, unless you're an investor.
The euphoria around the dual billionaire space trips has very little to do with space. In the days leading up to the flight, a pissing match between Bezos’s and Branson’s PR teams ensued over whether space begins 55 miles up (as defined by the US government, and the milestone that Branson would hit) or 62 miles (as defined by the Karman line which is observed internationally, and above which Bezos will fly). In other words, the billionaires were fighting over the nuances of who was going to technically-space. It's worth noting that millionaire Dennis Tito already paid his own way to the International Space Station, 240 miles above Earth, in 2001.
Rather than representing some new human achievement in spaceflight, Branson's stunt announced an industry: commercial space tourism for the wealthy, led by Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and Elon Musk's SpaceX.
The flight and lead-up were closely watched by investors on Reddit; Virgin Galactic’s stock has, for some time, enjoyed the status of being a meme stock along with the likes of GameStop and AMC. The very next day after Branson’s stunt flight, Virgin Galactic announced a plan to take advantage of the fact its shares have jumped nearly 100 percent by selling up to $500 million in stock. The stock tumbled on the announcement and sent retail investors into a panic online as they debated whether to hold or start a firesale.
As someone who loves science fiction and even wanted to one day become an immortal computer thanks to Kurzweil's Singularity cult, it pains me to say this: space travel as imagined by the billionaire class, for the foreseeable future, is a meaningless gimmick. It would take decades and possibly centuries to build the infrastructure necessary to develop the technical foundations for Elon Musk’s proposed Martian penal colony or Bezos’s dream of orbital colonies surrounding Earth.
Much of the criticism around these plans has centered around the fact that this is time and money that could be spent developing and building much more feasible infrastructure to do literally anything else here on Earth. Since 2000, over $7 billion in public subsidies have been doled out to private space companies through contracts with NASA, the Pentagon, and the FCC. In 2019, private space companies received nearly $6 billion in private investments.
There are, however, trillions of dollars worth of minerals out there in space waiting to be mined. And there are countless opportunities to take absurd sums of money from people who wish to pay for a flight into space one day. This is not a new space race so much as, as CNN commentator Kristin Fisher put it, a competition to become “the first of the billionaire space barons to make it into space on a ship that he funded and helped develop," which is a different sort of achievement.
Space travel, we are often told, is about inspiring generations to pursue careers in science or technology that push humanity forward in its inexorable march into the future. The current reality, however, is that it’s main purpose is to bolster private profit and international stature—both of which detract and distract from public and domestic problems like hunger, homelessness, and the risk of ecological catastrophe.
To this day, the 1969 Moon landing is spoken about with zealous fervor Less than a year after Armstrong’s first steps came Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken word poem "Whitey on the Moon" (1970), wherein Scott-Heron narrates his sister getting bit by a rat, the medical debt incurred afterwards, the rising cost of living, and their general immiseration at the same time as tens of billions of dollars are spent on ensuring Armstrong walked on the Moon. The questions that ring through the poem and should ring through any discussion of Branson, Musk, Bezos, and other barons going into space are: precisely who is going to space, why, and at what cost?
“We” did not go to the Moon during the Cold War, similar to how “we” are not going to space because Branson and Bezos and Musk want to. They are not going to space as most imagine it, but to low earth orbit.
They are not building a future for humanity off of Earth, but instead seeking investors and government subsidies for a private space tourism industry that will profit off of Earth.