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Grounding the dreams of the space elite

By Jeremy Vargo July 23, 2021

In the last few weeks, Sir Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have both popped up to space and experienced a few minutes of weightlessness in the first private passenger flights to go above “an invisible boundary between the planet’s atmosphere and outer space.” This won’t be news to anyone reading this, as those of us left earthside faced a barrage of news and social media postings lauding their accomplishments.  

Watching these headlines and stories scroll by, I haven’t been inspired or impressed. Instead, I’m left feeling cold, seeing the line-up of Branson, Bezos, and Musk: billionaires all consumed with personally replicating the 60 year old accomplishments of nations.

I haven’t been inspired or impressed. Instead, I’m left feeling cold

While Sputnik and the moon landing represented true firsts of human endeavour and the engineering and daring might of national superpowers, so far this race to be the first businessman to create viable commercial “space” tourism has served primarily to cultivate the personal mythos of these global superpersonas.

Not that they want to own that particular narrative. Branson says that his efforts are “to make space more accessible to all.” How very egalitarian. With ticket prices for the hour long experience set at $250,000 per person (and the New York Times reporting those are set to rise), this is not innovation for the masses. This isn’t Ford’s Model T, it’s more like an NFT.

Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to “possess” a non-fungible token of a digital file that is already available to everyone for free is, at best, incredibly wasteful. Similarly, the idea of “space tourism” twists the immensely resource intensive process of space travel into a paid consumer experience requiring no goal higher than personal amusement. No need to dream of becoming an astronaut, just become immensely wealthy.

The idea of “space tourism” twists the immensely resource intensive process of space travel into a paid consumer experience

While there will be some scientists that can get academic funding for a seat to conduct limited experiments, for the majority of tourists there is no great “discovery” in this adventure. The business model for this project lies in encouraging the very wealthy to convert dollars into ever more exclusive and elusive personal highs. The benefits of this billionaire’s rollercoaster? A long flight into the sky for a few moments of weightlessness; the ultimate Instagram “you had to be there” status signifier.

In the past, billionaires like Andrew Carnegie have made immense contributions to humanity, through programmes that supported widespread literacy and participation in the arts. Even today, Musk, Branson and Bezo’s uber-billionaire colleagues Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have understood their rarified capacity to help others, and have devoted significant wealth and strategic attention to the needs of the hungry, the poor, and the sick. There’s much to be said about extreme wealth, but at least these endeavours are actually useful, and will leave a lasting positive legacy for individuals, communities, and nations.

With every headline celebrating the new space race, I keep returning to the real world opportunity costs of pursuing these personal space dreams. Our admiration should be greater for the people addressing the many weighty and meaningful challenges we face together here on earth, rather than those seeking to escape gravity in short term adventures to the sky.

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