Billionaire space cowboys Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have rightfully been taking some flack for sub-orbital jaunts earlier this month that garnered plenty of headlines but little in the way of actual scientific advancement, apart from trying to normalize the idea of routine spaceflight for exceptionally rich people.
With all the power of the rockets that propelled them and their titanic egos into the wild blue yonder, social media went incandescent with criticism, arguing persuasively that Bezos and Branson could have used their money to address a sprawling multitude of problems, from climate change to income inequality, back here on Earth.
“Jeff Bezos is going into space tomorrow. Yesterday, on earth, I saw a man search for food in a trash can,” the critic Charles Preston observed on Twitter.
Warren Gunnels, a top aide to U.S. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, piled on, tartly noting that “class warfare is Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson becoming $250 billion richer during the pandemic, paying a lower tax rate than a nurse and racing to outer space while the planet burns and millions go without healthcare, housing and food.”
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Others wryly noted that should Bezos, the former Amazon chief, need to relieve himself while rocketing through the skies, he could always use the same plastic bottles that his drivers have said they use as they try to meet punishing delivery schedules.
Bezos, at least, had the presence of mind to observe that his critics were onto something, conceding that they were “largely right.”
“We have to do both,” he said. “We have lots of problems here and now on Earth and we need to work on those and we also need to look to the future, we’ve always done that as a species and as a civilization. We have to do both.”
On one level, Bezos was right. There always has been a fundamental tension between humankind’s interstellar ambitions, which tend to be massively expensive, and the feeling that money could be better used to ameliorate more terrestrial concerns.
“I am not opposed to climbing mountains because they’re there, or pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but I would urge the Trump Administration to consider putting its scientific efforts into problems closer to home (climate change? Or, say, clean water in Flint?) before our plan to colonize the moon turns into a plan to escape to it.” Ana Marie Cox wrote in 2018 as the former president briefly floated the idea of lunar colonization before the Earth was plunged into the worst public health crisis in a century.
There is undoubtedly a case to be made for the utility of spaceflight of advancing the cause of human knowledge. The digital flight controls pioneered by the Apollo program is “now integral to airliners and is even found in most cars,” according to NASA, which, admittedly, has something to gain by touting the earthbound benefits of space flight.
Writing in Foreign Policy in 2019, Greg Autry reminded readers of the now legendary image of the Earth captured by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders in 1968: A big, blue marble looking alone and so very vulnerable in the vast void of space. That photo, dubbed “Earthrise,” has inspired ever since.
“Today conservationists and other critics are more likely to see space programs as militaristic splurges that squander billions of dollars better applied to solving problems on Earth,” Autry wrote. “These well-meaning complaints are misguided, however. Earth’s problems — most urgently, climate change — can be solved only from space. That’s where the tools and data already being used to tackle these issues were forged and where the solutions of the future will be too.”
Knowledge — and money — deployed in the service of the greater good is almost always welcome. And I remain as much an evangelist for the exploration of interstellar space as anyone else. I agree with the premise that there is a mandate to explore — while gleaning the knowledge that comes along with it.
But in the case of the billionaire space race, there was almost no sense that this was, to paraphrase Neil Armstrong, one giant step for humankind.
Rather, it was about puffing the egos of spectacularly wealthy men, who despite all the hoopla, never made it that far into space in any event, with negligible scientific benefit.
Bezos and Branson, slipped the surly bonds of earth, as the poet John Gillespie Magee once wrote. But they returned to a planet just as riven by inequality, war, a still raging pandemic, and the crisis of climate change.
I’d suggest that if they were looking, as Magee also wrote, to “ the face of God,” they could have kept themselves — and their billions — on solid ground, and devoted it to Her creation on Earth.