August 4, 2021

It would be wrong to let Jeff Bezos ruin space for the rest of us

Jeff Bezos has done what everybody has dreamed of doing on a Monday: quit his job. He wants to go travelling – again, highly relatable.

Why be chief executive of Amazon and concern yourself with the day-to-day running of the monstrously large company you founded when you can venture off-planet? No amount of space debris can spoil that view.

There’s still some packing to do, so Bezos’s trip into temporary weightlessness on his Blue Origin vehicle New Shephard isn’t scheduled until July 20th. The date is not free of uncertainty. Rocket launches have been known to be cancelled at the last minute if adverse weather conditions or helicopters (ask Elon Musk about that one) get in the way. NPHET has also yet to give its seal of approval to Jeff’s journey.

It is hard to get more visually extreme proof of the global scourge of inequality than a billionaire jetting off into space while we rank-and-file humans remain governed by pandemic-tightened border restrictions, but to be fair to Bezos, it’s not like he could try to solve world hunger with his spare billions or anything.

Plot twist

What’s a man supposed to do once he has created an e-commerce, cloud computing and artificial intelligence pioneer, all while investing in a fleet of drones and snuffing out multiple attempts by human Amazon workers to unionise? Sit back and read the Washington Post?

He could ride an electric surfboard across a lake while waving a US flag to a John Denver soundtrack, but that’s already been done.

So Bezos is off, and he’s taking with him an auction winner, his younger brother Mark Bezos and Wally Funk (82), a woman who underwent privately funded astronaut training before either Bezos was born. Funk’s inclusion on New Shephard – named after US astronaut Alan Shephard – has won the Blue Origin mission some good pre-launch publicity, though frankly when it comes to space travel, the goal is good post-launch publicity.

British billionaire Richard Branson will board a Virgin Galactic test flight nine days before Bezos’s scheduled sub-orbital trip. Photograph: Don Emmert/AFP

A drearier plot twist to Bezos’s quest has come courtesy of fellow billionaire Richard Branson, the man who has put the Virgin name to everything from radio stations and record shops to hot-air balloons and has been trying to leave Earth unsuccessfully for some years now via his company Virgin Galactic.

After some rumours to the effect, it was confirmed on Friday that Branson will be boldly going on board a test flight of Virgin’s VSS Unity on July 11th, some nine days ahead of the Amazon founder’s departure.

“I think both of us will wish each other well. It really doesn’t matter if one of us goes a few days before the other,” Branson told CNN with no more than his usual smirk.

‘Different experience’

Blue Origin chief executive Bob Smith struck an alternative tone in a statement to the New York Times: “We wish him a great and safe flight, but they’re not flying above the Kármán line and it’s a very different experience.”

The Kármán line, set at some 100km above sea level, is one definition of the boundary between the atmosphere and outer space, where no one can hear you quibble. Essentially, Blue Origin is arguing that Branson will be flirting with space, while Bezos and friends will be going properly into it. Both flights will be sub-orbital in any case, leaving plenty of firsts for Musk to claim whenever he can wean himself off Twitter.

Amazingly, Branson’s manoeuvre has turned Bezos’s grand plan into a sort of mid-life crisis cliché before either of them have had the chance to go anywhere. Reaction to both men’s ambitions has been replete with groans and splutters, almost as if the whole business of space exploration has been tainted on exposure to their egos.

This seems a shame. It was even more of a shame when, in March, NASA released an audio clip of the Perseverance rover driving through a gust of wind on Mars – the first sounds recorded on the planet – and surprisingly few people cared.

Admittedly, those sounds were reminiscent of a dodgy Hoover being pushed through the gaps of chair legs, but still, an actual Martian wind is not something to be jaded about or just let slip through the news cycle without pausing to think about the achievement of all concerned.

Bezos, who will remain executive chairman of Amazon, says he’s been dreaming about travelling to space since he was five years old. This is the age he would have been in 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent an inordinate amount of time trying to spear the Stars and Stripes into the surface of the moon.

For many people born in the late 1950s or early 1960s, watching the moon landing on television is a key childhood memory, an occasion for awe and wonder that has stayed with them throughout their lives.

Children born in the late 1970s or early 1980s had the 1986 launch of the Challenger space shuttle, which they were encouraged to get excited about owing to the presence of teacher Christa McAuliffe among the crew. The shuttle broke apart on live television little over a minute after take-off.

Canadian Aaronaut Chris Hadfield celebrating St Patrick’s Day from the International Space Station.

Canadian Aaronaut Chris Hadfield celebrating St Patrick’s Day from the International Space Station.

Heroic potential

It is only in the past decade that the heroic potential of space exploration – and faith in the endeavour – has re-entered the public consciousness, thanks in part to the sterling social media efforts of Chris Hadfield.

The Canadian astronaut, now retired, flew three space missions, did two spacewalks and commanded the International Space Station while singing David Bowie. Even that ad he did for Electric Ireland is more inspiring than the Bezos-Branson bid to reimagine Apollo vs Soyuz as an eye-roll-triggering billionaires’ p***ing contest.

And yet it would be a mistake to forget how communications satellites from Telstar 1 in the early 1960s onwards have revolutionised broadcast media and shrunk the world we live in. The next generation of smaller, cheaper-to-launch satellites is poised to do the same for 5G and data storage. Amazon and Musk’s SpaceX are the superpowers leading this new, real space race, where rather more than bragging rights are at stake.

It’s annoying, but we should probably keep an eye on them.

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