On 11 July, founder of the Virgin Group, Richard Branson completed a trip to the boundary of outer space on his Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, dawning a new era of making space “more accessible to all”. Meanwhile, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is also scheduled to lift off on his suborbital space vehicle ‘New Shepard’ on 20 July.
The privatisation of space travel is hardly a new phenomenon and neither is the desire to look beyond this planet to new avenues, be it over a genuine curiosity about the universe or over ambitions of colonisation. We aren’t that far removed from Donald Trump’s Space Force dreams either.
The face of astronomy in popular culture, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, perfectly stated the positive side of having a “cosmic perspective”.
“The day we cease the exploration of the cosmos is the day we threaten the continuance of our species,” Tyson said, as part of a spoken word performance released in 2016.
Sadly, such a well-intentioned, albeit idealistic, position is nowhere to be found in the high-budget, ill-advised vanity projects that make up the billionaires’ space race today. The space race now appears to be more about ego than scientific advancement as evidenced by how Branson ‘preponed’ his space flight to outdo Bezos.
From dream to reality, this is the story of @VirginGalactic. The next chapter begins tomorrow. Watch the #Unity22 launch live at 6 am PT | 9 am ET | 2 pm BST on https://t.co/PcvGTmA661 pic.twitter.com/ETa6KXRW5F
— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) July 10, 2021
The Bezos vs Branson ‘coincidence’
In an interview with The Washington Post, Branson attempted to quell any notions of a rivalry with Bezos, stating that it was a mere “coincidence” that he and Bezos will be embarking on space travel in the same month.
But it is too little, too late. The hype trailers are out on social media and the narratives around ‘Bezos vs Branson’ have long since been manufactured. SpaceX owner Elon Musk also weighed in, wishing Branson luck ahead of the launch, as did Bezos.
— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) July 10, 2021
— Eric Berger (@SciGuySpace) July 10, 2021
Not everyone among the public appears to be particularly invested or impressed in seeing how their trips play out. To be honest, much on social media was about the Wimbledon or the Euros rather than Branson bicycling to his launchpad. But we did see criticism and memes directed at these billionaires.
wait jeff bezos and richard branson aren't being *launched* into space? they're just going to be in a plane that goes very high? that's lame as hell i'm sorry
— manny (@mannyfidel) July 9, 2021
I hope Richard Branson stays in space. And he can take that other billionaire clown Bezos with him. What a shitty example of how privileged fuckers conduct themselves.
— 🌊 Death Row Tull 🌊 (@dukewindsor388) July 10, 2021
Richard Branson is proof that when billionaires realize saving the planet is like hard or whatever, their next best idea is to leave the planet behind entirely. As long as it's still about them. A story in three parts. pic.twitter.com/Cf4qql02V9
— francesca fiorentini (@franifio) July 10, 2021
Political commentator Francesca Florentini’s post is particularly strong, citing Branson’s history of false promises over the past two decades on the issue of climate change. This apathy towards the planet’s crumbling environment is far from the only issue surrounding this billionaires’ space race though.
The New Republic’s Jacob Silverman writes: “The best argument against the billionaire space race is how little impact it will have on the lives of most of Earth’s inhabitants. It will inaugurate a new era of ultra-expensive stunt tourism, perhaps, but it will do nothing for the common good.”
Science writer Shannon Stirone also commented in The Atlantic, “Leaving Earth right now isn’t just bad optics; it’s almost a scene out of a twisted B-list thriller: The world is drowning and scorching, and two of the wealthiest men decide to … race in their private rocket ships to see who can get to space a few days before the other. If this were a movie, these men would be Gordon Gekko and Hal 9000—both venerated and hated.”
Harsh realities of what goes into making a space trip
What the social media marketing posts from Branson and Bezos conveniently omit the most is the challenges that make up the preparation of any expedition beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
In Branson’s case, the teething problems and previously fatal test flight faced by the VSS Unity spacecraft have been well-documented over Virgin Galactic’s 17-year history. As a result, Branson’s effort to gain a first-mover advantage in the race by moving the scheduled date feels hasty and doesn’t inspire confidence that everything will run smoothly.
But even if you put aside specific issues with the spacecraft, there’s a myriad of variables affecting the cosmic aspirations of all the billionaires in this race.
If any of you are under the impression that our billionaires might succeed in "escaping" to space, while the world burns, let me put those fears to rest with what I know from being the spouse of a NASA flight controller. 🧵
— Sim Kern (@sim_kern) July 3, 2021
As detailed perfectly by journalist Sim Kern, the realities of space travel are a far cry from the glamorous, Hollywood-inspired “champagne-sipping” vacations that Branson or Bezos would have you believe.
The entire itinerary is intensely micromanaged amid equipment that needs to be constantly monitored for maintenance. Be it exercise, food, sleep or going to the bathroom, every aspect of time spent in the spacecraft is akin to being in a zero-gravity cage with no means of escape.
Despite this glamourised propaganda that has surrounded this space race, it will be truly amazing to see the level of spin that Branson or Bezos will use about their experiences. Branson has already announced a sweepstakes contest where the winners will get two tickets to go to space with all the proceeds going to a ‘space tourism charity’ called “Space for Humanity.” Branson claimed that his experience was the first step towards making space accessible to those who cannot afford it.
“If you ever had a dream, now is the time to make it come true. I’d like to end by saying welcome to the dawn of a new space age,” he said.
Bring on the vanity project, the memes are already in drafts.
"Yeah we could pay taxes or solve real world problems but we prefer space games."
– Bezos, Branson, Musk pic.twitter.com/VOBJlpy8py
— Ethics in Bricks (@EthicsInBricks) July 12, 2021
I did not wake up this morning thinking someone would need to take this meme and modify it for Richard Branson, but here we are. pic.twitter.com/jcVFSEX1d8
— poguemahon 🇺🇸 💉 (@poguemahon) July 11, 2021
Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk to the rest of us pic.twitter.com/W7u6wyttkb
— Josh Weinstein (@Joshstrangehill) July 11, 2021
Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)