In Focus

Billionaires in space: essential innovation or ‘costly vanity project’?

‘One very small step for mankind, one giant ego trip for Jeff Bezos’

“One very small step for mankind, one giant ego trip for Jeff Bezos.” Last week, the Amazon founder became the second billionaire in a matter of days to launch himself into the heavens, said Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian. Virgin tycoon Richard Branson had made the first suborbital tourist flight, on 11 July; but Bezos’s Blue Origin rocket flew higher, and crossed the Kármán line, the widely recognised boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.

“Best. Day. Ever,” the 57-year-old proclaimed, as he touched down. “I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer,” he said mistily. “Because you guys paid for this.” It’s true, in a very real sense we did; and quite a few of us reckon our cash could have been better spent on Earth. As one critic pointed out, Bezos’s ten-minute trip cost $5.5bn – enough to stop 37.5 million people starving this year.

A tech tycoon who dons a cowboy hat before flying into space in a phallus-shaped rocket, is inviting trouble, said the FT. And there was certainly something jarring about the timing of these flights, as Earth was lashed by heatwaves and floods. But the critics dismissing the billionaire space race as an environmentally costly vanity project are missing the point. Space tourism is only the start for Bezos: sending the super rich on thrill rides will help fund his grander plans, which include moving heavy industries into space, to help preserve this planet.

As for Tesla-founder Elon Musk, his ultimate plan is to colonise Mars. In the meantime his firm SpaceX, with its cost-slashing re-usable rockets, is already “indispensable for delivering cargo and crew to the International Space Station”. The competition between these titans will only spur greater innovation.

People grumble that if Bezos cared about the planet, he’d focus his efforts closer to its surface, but he and Musk are right to gaze at the stars, said Andy Daga on USA Today. Resources are limited on Earth; in space, they are not. The idea that we could mine asteroids for minerals, or tap into solar energy, may seem fantastical, but so did cat scans and camera phones once. Both of those are by-products of space exploration. Who knows what benefits this new era will bring.

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