Three of the richest billionaires on Earth are now busily spending billions to exit our Earth’s atmosphere and enter into space. The world is watching—and reflecting.
Some commentators see our billionaire trio, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk, as heroic heirs to the legacies of Charles Lindbergh and Sir Edmund Hillary—the first mere mortals to high jump the Atlantic alone and scale the world’s highest mountain.
“Space travel used to be about ‘us,’ a collective effort by the country to reach beyond previously unreachable limits,” writes author William Rivers Pitt. “That was the Cold War propaganda, anyway, and it had an unavoidable allure. Now, it’s about ‘them,’ the 0.1 percent.”
Let’s not treat the billionaire space race as a laughing matter. Let’s see it as a wake-up call, a reminder that we don’t only get billionaires when wealth concentrates. We get a society that revolves around the egos of the most affluent among us and an economy where the needs of average people go unmet and don’t particularly matter.
Characters like Elon Musk, notes Paris Max, host of the “Tech Won’t Save Us” podcast, are using “misleading narratives about space to fuel public excitement” and gain tax-dollar support for various projects “designed to work best—if not exclusively—for the elite.”
The three corporate space shells for Musk, Bezos, and Branson—SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic—have “all benefited greatly through partnerships with NASA and the U.S. military,” notes CNN Business. Their common corporate goal: to get satellites, people, and cargo “into space cheaper and quicker than has been possible in decades past.”
Branson, for his part, is hawking tickets for roundtrips “to the edge of the atmosphere and back,” at $250,000 per head. He’s planning some 400 such trips a year, observes British journalist Oliver Bullough, “almost as bad an idea as racing to see who can burn the rainforest quickest.”
The annual UN Emissions Gap Report last year concluded that the world’s richest 1% do more to foul the atmosphere than the entire poorest 50% combined. That top 1%, the UN report adds, would have to “reduce its footprint by a factor of 30 to stay in line” with the 2015 Paris Agreement targets. Opening space to rich people’s joyrides would stomp that footprint even bigger.
Bezos and Musk seem to have grander dreams than mere space tourism. They’re looking “to colonize the cosmos,” with Bezos pushing “artificial tube-like structures floating close to Earth” and Musk talking up the terraforming of Mars. They essentially see space as a refuge from an increasingly inhospitable planet Earth. They expect tax-dollar support to make their various pipedreams come true.
We don’t need billionaires out to “conquer space.” We need to conquer inequality.
Sam Pizzigati is co-editor of Inequality.org.