I DIDN’T stay up to see the moon landing back in 1969. My parents clearly didn’t consider it that big a deal to wake their six-year-old son at 3.56am to see Neil Armstrong make that small step for man (sic), some 238,855 miles from Earth.
And I can’t say I paid much attention this last week or two to either Richard Branson or Jeff Bezos’s quick birl up to the top of the sky. Bezos got as high as 66.5 miles on the Blue Origin. Branson managed to rise north (I know space doesn’t have a north, but go with me) of 50 miles.
From the outside it did look a little like a grotesque peeing contest between two men with deep pockets. Indeed, even the design of Bezos’s Blue Origin was a little on the nose in this regard. (It’s possible my anatomical knowledge is a little off here.)
But the teenage sci-fi fan in me was also quite pleased that the 82-year-old Mary Wally Funk became the oldest human to go into space, fulfilling her lifetime dream after being dropped as an astronaut back in the 1960s. So, swings and rocket ships.
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Social media has greeted the flights with the usual extreme binaries. You had the choice between “this is what capitalism can do” and “this is what rich men who don’t pay their taxes/workers can do.”
The reality is maybe a little more nuanced than either. The idea that any modern-day space travel can be considered capitalist is a bit much considering that it piggybacks on Nazi engineering (looking at you, Mr von Braun) and decades of Cold War R&D (itself an extreme peeing contest, you might argue).
While I’m all for rich men paying more than their fair share of taxes (frankly, paying any would be a start), rich men will always spend money on grand follies. If we’re lucky we might get a Taj Mahal or a Michelangelo or two out of it.
As for philanthropy, well, Bezos, it must be said, seems at times singularly lacking in the milk of human kindness. But it could also be pointed out that his ex-wife Mackenzie Scott has been giving billions away since their divorce in 2019, so at least some of that Amazon money is going to a good cause.
Still, the optics of space flights for rich folk while the world is burning (quite literally in places) are at first glance pretty heinous. Bezos could certainly improve his public image no end by telling us that he is going to commit his Amazon billions to saving the Amazon.
But, let’s face it, that’s probably not going to happen. So, while we should applaud the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates for their philanthropic gestures, it’s probably not a good idea to rely too heavily on the hope that the super-rich will step in to help the rest of us.
They have, it would appear, other rockets to fly.