On July 11th, a news alert on my phone prompted me to stream live coverage of Sir Richard Branson and crew’s space flight aboard the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo. I only got through the first few minutes of corny pre-flight footage before shutting it off with a tired “ugh.”
Later, my spouse updated me that they all made it to the edge of the earth’s mesosphere and back without incident. Fine. Good for them. I’m certainly glad nothing bad happened and that everyone returned safely to their families. Being an unreserved space nerd, NASA devotee, Trekkie, etc., I have spent much of my life fantasizing about humans in space, and yet, on this occasion, I could not bring myself to be excited about this achievement by fellow members of my species.
I can only imagine that this sentiment is shared by the 4,700 former employees laid off by Virgin Atlantic Airways last fall (this despite the company previously securing a $1.58 billion dollar rescue deal). Did Branson think we’d all be proud of him for winning the billionaire pissing contest? How out of touch must one be to believe that we lowly 90 percenters would enjoy watching a sinfully rich man gleefully float about in zero gravity for all of four minutes and think, “Wow, I’m so happy for him that I’ve temporarily forgotten about the multiple global crises layer cake that’s keeping me down!”
On July 20th, Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos took off in his uncannily phallic-shaped Blue Origin craft, and not to be outdone by Branson, his crew ascended just a few miles higher. Upon landing, the newly minted space cowboy strutted to his post-flight press conference, where he thanked Amazon employees and customers “because you guys paid for all this” … Um, you’re welcome? Instead of thanks, many Amazon workers expressed that they’d prefer better wages and working conditions; other citizens and lawmakers suggested he could express his appreciation by paying his fair share in taxes. Bezos went on to assert that this trip is an important first step on the road to space for our kids and that we need to invest in this venture “to solve the problems here on Earth.”
I’m not sold. Instead, I wonder how much was spent on these purely unscientific joy rides and their accompanying publicity budgets. How many COVID-19 vaccines could that money have funded instead? I think about the total carbon footprint amassed in the development of these rockets carrying small, elite groups, spewing their emissions over the states of New Mexico and Texas, which are currently experiencing mega-drought conditions. Instead of focusing resources on green technologies for existing terrestrial modes of travel, they’ve created a more exclusive way for the ultra-wealthy jetsetter to pollute while diverting themselves.
This got me ruminating about the ventures that will follow these in the advance toward space colonization. How can we look at the state of our own planet and believe we are qualified to annex a new one? If we cannot sustain our population with the uniquely abundant resources available on Earth, how do we expect to manage on a desert alien world? Here we continue to raze the environment, causing catastrophic biodiversity loss and the mass extinction of countless other organisms, yet we fancy ourselves capable of successfully terraforming a new home? We are filling Earth’s orbit so full of satellites and man-made space debris that it will be a wonder if we can even make it out without collision when it comes time to planet-hop. And if we do pull it off, do we really want these robber barons of capitalism holding the keys to the spaceships, de facto gatekeepers of Earth 2.0?
Just like Sir Richard Branson, “I was once a child with a dream.” My dream was of an egalitarian human race that had totally eliminated poverty and war, living harmoniously as part of a thriving global ecosystem. I imagined that the spacefarers of my time would be the kind of ambassadors that represented the most admirable qualities of humankind. Forgive me Mr.’s Branson, Bezos, and Musk – you aren’t what I had in mind.