Of Billionaires and Their…Toys?

So what did you think of Richard Branson’s foray into space?

To recap, on Sunday, July 11, 2021, Sir Richard Branson, pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, and employees Beth Moses, Colin Bennett, and Sirisha Bandla boarded SpaceShipTwo, a winged plane with a single rocket motor that Branson’s company Virgin Galactic has been developing for the past twenty years. SpaceShipTwo was actually nestled beneath WhiteKnightTwo, its twin-fuselaged mothership, which lofted the plane to about 50,000 feet before launching on its own. Climbing to the edge of space, more than 50 miles high, the plane gave its passengers a panoramic view of Earth and four minutes of weightlessness, then descended to a runway landing.

That was it. The entire flight took about an hour. So what?

On the superficial level, Branson beat fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos to the top of the atmosphere by nine days. And supposedly this marks the beginning of space tourism — according to CNN, to date more than 600 people have reserved tickets at $200,000 to $250,000.

It’s easy to look upon this as a curiosity for the top one-hundredth of one percent, a mistimed misdirection of wealth when there are so many problems here on our home planet. Or worse, a game among the obscenely wealthy akin to trying to outrival Disney’s Uncle Scrooge McDuck and his money bin. Jacob Silverman wrote last week in The New Republic that “At a time when our earthly inequities could not be more clear, it is obscene to allow moguls to pour their untaxed billions, earned on the backs of precarious workers, into private ventures divorced from everyday concern or accountability.”

But when asked of what good a comparable venture was in colonial times, Benjamin Franklin supposedly replied “Of what good is a newborn baby?” At this point, no one knows where this is leading. Except up of course.

As a history nerd, I’m struck by the space-age parallels with the exploration of the New World. Recall that Christopher Columbus sailed for Spain, a government operation that in effect was the NASA of its age. Then in the next wave came the private developers looking to cash in. Recall in Disney’s animated feature Pocahontas how the English crew sang about “We’ll all be rich and free. Or so we have been told by The Virginia Company.”

Now history shows every sign of repeating itself. We know these tourist flights will begin. We can be sure that somewhere along the line people will die (a few have already). And there will be a search for commercial opportunities beyond panoramic views at the edge of space. Could this possibly lead to eventually preserving Earth while harvesting our energy and raw materials from other sources in the solar system?  In the words of video game developer Richard Garriott, who has dreamt about going into space himself, “We really could go down one of two paths. In a few decades we could reach a point where we have to ration birth rates, energy, food, and more in a stark way. Or, we could bring back the bounty of resources in space, and now is the time to start that process.”

During the post-flight celebration, Branson exclaimed “Welcome to the dawn of the new space age.” On that point, I completely agree. Otherwise, stay tuned.

Sources —

“Here’s Why Richard Branson’s Flight Matters—and, Yes, it Really Matters” by Eric Berger (https://arstechnica.com/science/2021/07/heres-why-richard-bransons-flight-matters-and-yes-it-really-matters/?).

“‘It was just magical’: Virgin Galactic Space Plane Carrying Richard Branson Reaches Edge of Space, Returns Safely,” by Algernon D’Ammassa and John Bacon (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2021/07/11/virgin-galactic-richard-branson-historic-spaceflight/7929775002/).

“Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson Successfully Rockets to Outer Space” by Jackie Wattles (https://www.cnn.com/2021/07/11/tech/richard-branson-virgin-galactic-space-flight-scn/index.html).

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