Previous generations gathered around their black and white TVs to watch Neil Armstrong take mankind’s first steps on the moon.
We, on the other hand, got to watch a man who amassed billions by exploiting his workers and destroying all the bookshops self-fund a jaunt on a huge space cock to drink champagne and cackle maniacally (probably).
It’s the latest in a recent trend of people-with-enough-money-to-end-world-hunger messing about above the planet for fun.
Just last week, Richard Branson flew Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceplane above the atmosphere. In 2018, Elon Musk put a Tesla Roadster in space piloted by a mannequin.
Jeff Bezos, the richest man on the planet, is just the latest of these apocalyptic horsemen and may indicate a shift in how the uber-wealthy may be spending their time and money in the near future.
It’s the burgeoning world of space tourism and we’re here to dish on what it is and what it means for the planet.
What is space tourism?
Space tourism is essentially just going to space for fun. It’s actually a relatively old concept, with American businessman Dennis Tito having paid US$20 million in 2001 to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) with Russian cosmonauts.
So far, there have only been a handful of people who have gone beyond the planet’s atmosphere for purely recreational purposes but that could all be set to change soon.
NASA declared the ISS open for commercial purposes in 2019 and is seeking to supplement its massive US government budget with private ventures including space manufacturing, drug development, and huge marketing stunts.
Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, is just one of several space tourism operators that are looking to set up in the near future. Branson has his own, Virgin Galactic, and Musk too has confirmed that SpaceX will send three private citizens into space within the next six months.
The SpaceX deal signed with Axiom Space, the first company to run a private space station, heralded that “the commercialization of low-Earth orbit is in full swing.”
Indeed it is. Another company, Orbital Assembly Corporation, has plans to open a luxury space hotel by 2027. The ‘Voyager Station’, is set to accommodate 280 guests and 112 crew members and will be the first-ever commercial space hotel. It’s going to really make those Bali Instagram snaps look like sh*t.
Blue Origin, for its part, is expected to open ticket sales for commercial flights to low-orbit space soon and has already lined up bidders.
The spaceship that Bezos flew on, New Shepard, is capable of taking passengers to the very edge of space, where weightlessness kicks in as you move out of Earth’s gravity. Their next venture, a ship called New Glenn, is designed to be able to bring cargo and crew into proper orbit by the end of next year.
Blue Origin is also planning to send tourists to the Moon, meaning the phrase ‘Ah, the Moon is so crowded this time of year’ could become a common complaint in the next few decades.
What’s the cost?
If you thought plane tickets during the pandemic were expensive, wait until you hear how much they’re charging to go to space.
Bezos took with him three guests on his space flight. One was his brother, Mark Bezos, and another was Wally Funk (real name), a female pilot who had undergone testing in the ’60s to go to space with NASA but was ultimately barred because of her gender.
The final guest was Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old Dutch student soon to start college whose father bid on a ticket for the ride for him but was outbid by an anonymous competitor.
The winner later rescheduled his flight, saying ‘scheduling conflicts’ meant he had better things to do than go to space, making Daemen the youngest person in space and Blue Origins first paying customer.
His winning bid was US$28 million.
Of course, the real cost comes to the Amazon workers, who are required to scan 1,800 packages per hour and have been petitioning for 30-minute breaks in their 12-hour shifts.
Bezos made the point of thanking “every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all of this,” after the flight. It’s unclear if the workers were given a break to watch their boss leave Earth’s atmosphere, propelled by burning cash.
Scientists have also raised concerns over the environmental costs of industrial space travel, as rockets emit 50-100 times more CO2 than commercial airliners do per passenger.
Virgin Galactic anticipates it will offer 400 spaceflights each year while Blue Origin and SpaceX have yet to confirm their plans. It would not, however, take much to tip space flight into becoming another source of dangerous pollutants in our atmosphere.
Shouldn’t we be doing something about the problems down here?
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch’.”
Those were the words of NASA astronaut and sixth man to walk on the moon, Edgar Mitchell, reflecting on the view from outer space.
It’s undoubtable that looking at Earth from space is transformative (probably, we’ve never been), but whether or not Bezos and his contemporaries will undergo a transcendental shift towards peace and love seems unlikely.
Bezos did tell however tell reporters after the flight that seeing Earth from space “changes you”.
“It changes your relationship with this planet, with humanity,” he said, adding that “we’re going to build a road to space so that our kids and their kids can build a future.
“We need to do that to solve the problems here on Earth.”
It’s unclear how “building a road to space” is going to solve the problems here on Earth, unless, as Wallace and Gromit would have us believe, the moon really is made of cheese.
Instead of investing billions in space tourism companies to out-do the other space billionaires, Bezos, Musk, and Branson could literally end world hunger, possibly hundreds of times over.
Unfortunately, feeding the 820 million or so people suffering annually from chronic hunger probably doesn’t give you quite the same buzz as escaping a burning planet to laugh at the poor sods beneath you.