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Space launches of Branson and Bezos show how out of touch some of world’s wealthiest are

Earth is too busy to marvel at the billionaire space race

This week we have been treated to several absurd fixtures in the news cycle.

We are talking Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos’s jolly into space (mere days after Virgin Group founder Richard Branson’s similar expedition); the announcement of Prince Harry’s memoir that no one asked for; and Dominic Cummings’ loosening grip on relevance and hardening appearance of sheer desperation. Welcome to Summer 2021: the season of men teleologically geared to destroying their own reputation.

You might be forgiven for thinking that some of the world’s wealthiest, most famous and formerly (in the case of Cummings) influential men ought to be in possession of the good sense to read the room and act accordingly.

Against a backdrop of escalating climate catastrophe and a world that is far from clear of the coronavirus pandemic, it seems it shouldn’t be a stretch to realise this may not be the time – as far as optics are concerned, at least – to centre yourself in the global narrative. Well, luckily they have arrived on our front pages and small screens to disabuse ourselves of such naiveté.


Bezos, who is currently the richest man in the world, is clearly not satisfied with the Amazonification of just the Earth, and has turned his eye to beyond the ozone layer

And so we should turn our attention to the latest instalment in the space race, as everyone’s favourite billionaires Bezos, Branson and Elon Musk stake their claim to the space tourism industry. It isn’t exactly Cold War 2.0, however: the US and the USSR are not vying for global supremacy, nor is anyone after a symbolic victory of their chosen ideology. Rather the trio (whose combined wealth is estimated as somewhere around the GDP of Ireland) just seem to share a long-held belief that space is pretty cool.

This is perhaps so far so good. Space exploration is surely a noble pursuit and it needn’t come at the expense of prioritising human and, well, earthly needs. The instinct for cynicism is usually always one worth repressing. It is more often than not the enemy of progress and innovation. Sniping from the sidelines is fun but has never really been productive.

Perhaps not. Bezos, who is currently the richest man in the world, is clearly not satisfied with the Amazonification of just the Earth, and has turned his eye to beyond the ozone layer. He made an 11-minute journey in a rocket designed by his company Blue Origin this week. Unfortunately, he was pipped to the post by rival astronaut Branson – sitting at a paltry 589th place in the world rich list – who last Sunday successfully completed his own suborbital voyage.

“We’re here to make space more accessible to all,” said Branson after his flight. “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age,” he added. Accessible to all? The dawn of a new space age? The world’s wealthiest have always had a penchant for being out of touch (part of their charm, really), but this is egregious. Has Branson not noticed we are rather preoccupied?

Though Bezos failed to beat Branson to space, the one contest he excelled in was tone-deaf statements post-flight. After his successful – if brief – joyride Bezos thanked Blue Origin’s engineers, before adding: “I also want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer, ‘cause you guys paid for all this.”

It is quite the statement to emerge from the founder of a company who has come under repeated fire for the dire conditions for employees of his own warehouses. Perhaps he could have said: “Thanks for funding my cosmic jaunts, and no, you can’t unionise!” It seems it ought to be enough to make even the most hardened of capitalists question the strength of their convictions.

The dawn of a new space age is unlikely figuring on anyone's radar right now, aside from the very few who needn't concern themselves with such earthly matters

This is no criticism emerging from a technophobic place. And there will be several Silicon Valley types who are quick to run to their hero’s defence, marvelling at the vision and innovation and growth that got these men to space in the first place. Surely the world is better – not worse – for pioneering commercial space travel? And surely those who have changed the world with their products and zeal can spend their wares in whatever way they please?

Maybe. But the problem with the billionaire space race is that it’s a lot more difficult to buy any of that when their motivations appear so deeply and incontrovertibly individualistic, no matter what language they dress it up in. And it all becomes a harder pill to swallow as we are fed news about biblical flooding across Germany, nigh on intolerable heatwaves in Britain and Ireland, developing countries collapsing under the weight of an unvaccinated population.

The dawn of a new space age is unlikely figuring on anyone’s radar right now, aside from the very few who needn’t concern themselves with such earthly matters.

It is often said by astronauts that going to space and seeing Earth from such a distance affords one with an entirely new perspective. “I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile,” said astronaut Michael Collins upon his return to Earth in 1969. Maybe Bezos and his compatriot Branson may too have felt a similar stirring. And if it took them leaving Earth to get their heads out of space then perhaps it is not such a bad thing.