Bezos, Branson, Musk. The billionaires throwing untold resources into private space travel may prove, in the end, to be visionaries. But they're also blind, it would seem, to real-world problems here on planet Earth.
There is no shortage of people hailing the tycoon-space-adventurers Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk as modern-day equivalents of Christopher Columbus, Americo Vespucci and Ferdinand Magellan. Only in this case, the quest to cross new frontiers comes against a backdrop of climate change and a global pandemic.
With so many people asking how they can free themselves from all the current restrictions on their happiness, these narcissistic businessmen are going ahead and doing it — treating themselves to an exhilarating and no-expenses spared day out in space. They may be immensely farsighted visionaries, but they're also blind to the basic problems of this world.
The common denominator and symbolic value of their endeavors is in a desire to free themselves from the law of gravity, a reality that, for astronauts aside, is the one law that's applicable to everybody, everywhere on Earth. Or was, at any rate.
Like the explorers of old, who showed the way to unknown continents and opened our eyes to the Earth's roundness, tycoon travelers are in turn anticipating future conquests beyond the Earth's magnetic field. They have worked in parallel and in competition with sovereign states, most recently with their blessing. For now, it's about introducing one more option in luxury leisure. But in time, these trips may lead to spending more time or living in space, and finally, settling on other planets. Who knows what else may come of this process, as we are merely at its outset.
Richard Branson aboard Unity 22 — Photo: Virgin Galactic/ZUMA
Three top entrepreneurs, who have each achieved phenomenal success in their respective fields, are presently in competition. Branson, the founder of the Virgin brands, is a longstanding fan of acrobatic feats and a pioneer in innovative services. Bezos of Amazon has discovered new forms of selling all manner of items. And Musk of Tesla and PayPal has triumphed in finding new ways of utilizing scientific knowledge. Together, they may be ushering the world into an era that will focus on objectives far removed from this planet. They have resources and scientific and logistical backing hitherto available only to national governments, but unlike governments, they are unconstrained by any potential political fallout from their actions or failures.
As in any time of conquest, each party wants to be the first to gain useful and awe-inspiring results. And they will all want to do it their way, taking full advantage of the lack of rules or set parameters restricting their actions. Just as six centuries ago the planet was "fresh" and exposed to discoveries and conquests, the fresh territory today is the space above and beyond the magnetic field that pins the rest of us to the globe.
They may be immensely farsighted visionaries, but they're also blind to the basic problems of this world.
With Blue Origin, Bezos announced that he would be heading where the first U.S. and Russian astronauts — back when it really was a remarkable feat — had gone before. He planned his trip for July 20, to commemorate the moon landing, but ignored the ancient Greek counsel not to divulge your plans ahead of time, lest anyone listening should beat you to it. And that's exactly what Branson decided to do, by rushing to get his own space jaunt off the ground just ahead of that, on July 11. Musk, for his part, has yet to leave the Earth, but his Space X will soon get its turn.
Without joining the quibbling over who flew higher or first, this is the start of a much longer trip. The billionaires have commercial priorities now and perhaps bigger ambitions in the future, with talk of regular tourism on the edge of the atmosphere (Branson), settlements on the moon (Bezos), or colonizing and even peacefully dying on Mars (Musk).
Amazon's Jeff Bezos in front of his Blue Origin rocket — Photo: Chuck Bigger/Space Symposium via ZUMA Press Wire
This incipient space race is, like any grand enterprise, filled with propaganda, expectations ad achievements, but also frustrations and failures. As Paul G. Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft who financed the SpaceShipOne project in 2004, said, this is a challenge that will keep attracting adventurers who will push it toward unknown frontiers.
Like their 16th-century forebears, the new explorers will act at times on their own account and at others, under state patronage. Bezos, Branson and Musk have already received assignments and signed multi-million dollar deals with public agencies to develop technologies and build equipment of use not just in space, but to armies. As always..
Presently there is a marvelous, creative anarchy around these endeavors, have yet to be regulated or subject to public debate and scrutiny. At some point though, intervention may be needed to prevent this bubbling progress being diverted to "defensive," or better said martial, ends. It is the eternal play between the exercise of freedom and the need for order.
It is all fascinating, encouraging and intriguing, but also indicative of humanity's essential contradictions: Some reach for the sky as others are mired in the most basic problems of survival, on a planet that is more vulnerable than ever. Resources are needed to meet the health and nutrition needs of millions of people. All the while, these billionaires throw countless money toward flying through the clouds.
That may be why the website change.org garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures for the idea of not allowing Jeff Bezos to return to Earth. And if these mega-moguls do insist on going to space, perhaps they should just stay there. Because who knows, a few centuries from now, people might to topple their statues too, just as they do now with monuments to the old-guard conquistadors.