Within hours, Jeff Bezos will blast off into space, a week after Richard Branson went up. Another small step for billionaires.
Once upon a time, long long ago, people with names like John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Buzz Aldrin, and Sally Ride blasted into space. None was selected on the basis of income or wealth, but on skill and rigorous training. Their heroism – and we regarded them as national heroes – symbolized America’s technological prowess and egalitarianism.
I remember as a kid talking with other kids my age about becoming an astronaut. It was something any of us could aspire to if we had enough guts and gumption. The astronauts of that time came from middle-class and blue-collar families. They’d gone to public schools. They were like the rest of us, but their bravery and skill justified their status as national heroes.
The space program itself was quintessential American. In a way, it seemed as if all of us were going into space, risking our lives for the nation, and becoming the first to land on the moon. Yet our pride was not of the nativist variety. We won the space race because we had worked harder, longer, better. Our astronauts were backed by teams of scientists, aeronautical engineers, and aerospace workers who took great pride in their work, and we took pride in all of them. Again and again, we used the term “we” to describe the achievement, a common good.
Today’s space race could not be more different. Bezos, Branson, and Elon Musk, the third billionaire racing into space, aren’t “we.” There’s no common good in their achievement. They symbolize the extreme apex of wealth today, some of it gained by paying their workers rock-bottom wages and shutting out competitors. They’re closer to the robber barons of the first Gilded Age – Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John D. Rockefeller – whose conspicuous fortunes were founded on wage suppression, union-busting, and monopolization, and whose toys were the first motor cars and airplanes. The new space venturers are not backed by widely-celebrated teams of scientists, engineers, and workers. There is no collective pride in their achievement.
When Branson came down to earth last week, the New York Times wrote admiringly that “billionaire entrepreneurs are risking injury or death to fulfill their childhood aspirations — and advance the goal of making human spaceflight unexceptional.” And it quoted Eric Anderson, chairman of Space Adventures Limited, a company that charters launches to orbit, saying “They’re putting their money where their mouth is, and they’re putting their body where their money is. That’s impressive, frankly.”
Rubbish. If Branson, Bezos, and Musk – or Eric Anderson, for that matter – are advancing anything or anyone, it’s the prospect of making boatloads of money by selling future seats to other people able and willing to pay huge sums for the thrill. At a time when America and the world face existential crises ranging from climate change to raging inequality to deathly pandemics, these ventures into space aren’t impressive, frankly.
If some kids today are inspired by Branson, Bezos, and Musk, the inspiration is more about accumulating money and power than making the nation proud, more about propelling themselves forward than propelling America or the world forward. Sure, it takes some bravery to belt yourself into a rocket next to a few other billionaires who have paid tens of millions for the privilege, but that doesn’t come close to heroism.
We’ve privatized almost everything else, but no one can privatize heroism.