The optics of billionaires in space

Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are burning money to slip the surly bonds of Earth. This might not be helping their image

Ronald Reagan helped a nation grieve when he eulogized the space shuttle Challenger astronauts, saying they “slipped the surly bonds of Earth” to “touch the face of God.”

Reagan was quoting a poem by John Gillespie Magee that beautifully describes the experience of flight. But as Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson ascend to heights unavailable to ordinary people of lesser means, there’s less poetry and more surliness about what they’re doing up there.

“Leave the billionaires in space,” grumbled writer Paris Marx in the U.K.’s Tribune magazine. “Really, billionaires? This is what you’re going to do with your unprecedented fortunes and influence? Drag race to outer space?” comedian Seth Myers ranted. More than 150,000 people have signed an online petition that says “Do not allow Jeff Bezos to return to Earth.”

Jeff Bezos, right, the world’s richest man and founder of aerospace company Blue Origin, checks out the company’s Crew Capsule 2.0 after a test flight on Dec. 12, 2017. Bezos plans to launch into space aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket later this month. | Blue Origin

Some of the outrage is comedy, cheap shots about privileged white men buying toys for a midlife crisis (although Branson, a grandfather, is 70).

However, a timeless moral dilemma lies at the heart of the criticism: whether it’s right to spend money on nonessentials while other people go hungry or bankrupt from medical bills. This question was a key driver of public opposition to the first moon landing.

Throughout the 1960s, a majority of Americans opposed the Apollo 11 mission and believed the government was spending too much money on space exploration, Alexis C. Madrigal wrote for The Atlantic. This viewpoint was especially common among Black Americans. “Many Black papers questioned the use of American funds for space research at a time when many African Americans were struggling at the margins of the working class,” Madrigal wrote.

One of the few public defenders of billionaires in space is columnist Megan McArdle, writing for The Washington Post, who said “even a fleeting roller-coaster ride into the Earth’s thermosphere can be an enduring contribution to humanity.”

Every human breakthrough, “from fire onward,” McArdle argued, was likely disparaged and resented by the pioneer’s peers. She likened Bezos’ and Branson’s achievements to Orville and Wilbur Wright and said private companies tend to innovate better than government can. “If humanity is eventually going to the stars, that kind of innovation will be an essential part of how we’ll get there. Even if, at the moment, most of us can’t quite see it.”

But McArdle’s take is a minority view, as she acknowledges. And it should probably be noted that Bezos owns The Washington Post.

Why it’s hard to give away money when you’re rich

A partisan divide

Critics have slammed Branson and Bezos for “not reading the room,” saying that this is an especially cringeworthy time to be joyfully cavorting in space as income inequality rises, the West is burning, the Taliban is advancing, and COVID-19 cases are edging upward again.

And predictably, there is a partisan divide on the subject, with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in March chiding Tesla founder Elon Musk for pledging to help make human life “multiplanetary.” (Musk’s SpaceX wants to colonize Mars.)

Calling today’s income inequality “obscene,” Sanders said on Twitter, “Space travel is an exciting idea, but right now we need to focus on Earth and create a progressive tax system so that children don’t go hungry, people are not homeless and all Americans have health care.” 

However, essayists in the conservative website National Review Online have lauded private ventures into space, saying that they have already brought the cost of space exploration down. Before SpaceX, the U.S. was paying Russia $90 million to get one American astronaut to the International Space Station, Andrew Follett wrote for NRO. Reusable rockets developed by SpaceX can do that for $55 million, he said, adding “Musk has demonstrated that the American private sector can do what its government cannot.”

Richard Branson hovers weightlessly inside Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity space plane during its flight into space on Sunday, June 11, 2021.
Richard Branson hovers weightlessly inside Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity space plane during its flight into space on Sunday, June 11, 2021. | Virgin Galactic

And Brandon J. Weichert argued in NRO that that the privatization of space is a critical component of American competition with China. “Whichever nation wins the new space race will determine the future of the earth below,” Weichert wrote.

He added, “Whatever one’s opinion about Bezos or Musk, the fact is that their private space companies are inspiring greater innovation today in the space sector after years of its being left in the sclerotic hands of the U.S. government.”

In a recent survey about Americans’ views of space exploration, Pew found that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say the government should be involved in space ventures. “Conversely, Republicans (41%) are more likely than Democrats (28%) to say private companies will ensure that enough progress is made.”

A recurring complaint

On social media, Bezos, in particular, is a particularly inviting target for ridicule given that his former wife, MacKenzie Scott, is busy giving her billions away, or at least trying to do so. It turns out, when you’re as rich as Bezos and Scott are, your money makes more money faster than you can give it away.

In one recent day, an increase in Amazon stock prices earned Scott $2.9 billion in one day, more than the $2.7 billion she’d recently given away. “Despite her widely cited promise to keep making charitable donations ‘until the safe is empty,’ so far her philanthropy hasn’t made much of a dent in her accumulating wealth,” Tim Schwab wrote for The Nation.

Meanwhile, Scott’s former husband contends with relentless criticism about Amazon wages and working conditions and the fact that he hasn’t signed the Giving Pledge, amid suggestions about what he should do with his money. Often these suggestions include ending hunger: A writer for The Verge estimated that it would take only about 1/7th of his wealth to end hunger in the U.S., and a Twitter account with 103,000 followers asks every day “Has Jeff Bezos decided to end world hunger?”

A recurring complaint about the billionaire space force involves the wealth tax, pushed by Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., among others. Many people on social media have said the money Bezos and Branson are spending on their space adventures is proof that a wealth tax is needed to address income inequality. Recent revelations by ProPublica about the tax-evasion strategies of some of the wealthiest Americans haven’t helped the billionaires’ cause. According to ProPublica, Bezos, the world’s richest man, paid no federal taxes at all in 2007 and Musk, the world’s second-richest man, paid none in 2018.

When did ‘billionaire’ become a four-letter word? An inside look at wealth, poverty and presidential politics

That said, Bezos and Branson and ultimately Musk are not zooming off to space like the rest of us Earth-dwellers head to the beach or the lake. They bummed a ride on the space vehicles developed by their companies: Bezos’s Blue Origin and Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Other ultra-wealthy people will be following in their wake. According to Reuters, about 600 people have booked reservations for a $250,000 seat on the Virgin Galactic “rocket plane.” That price is expected to double when the company formally begins operations, although Branson said he hopes the price will eventually descend to about $40,000.

And a still-anonymous person paid $28 million for a seat on Bezos’ inaugural flight July 20, although the person has deferred the flight to the future, citing “scheduling conflicts.” He’s been replaced by an 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, who along with the previously announced passenger Wally Funk, 82, will be the youngest and oldest people to go into space, respectively.

Meanwhile, critics of Bezos and Branson might not be as familiar with the name Charles Simonyi. He’s a Hungarian-born billionaire who’s already been to space twice as a tourist, via the Virginia company Space Adventures. On its website, you, too, can sign up to visit the International Space Station in 2023. The website doesn’t tell you the price, however.

If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.