The false heroism of space billionaires

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In a few hours, Jeff Bezos will fly into space, a week after the ascension of Richard Branson. Another small step for billionaires.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, people with names like John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Buzz Aldrin, and Sally Ride exploded in space. None were selected on the basis of income or wealth, but on skills and rigorous training. Their heroism – and we saw them as national heroes – symbolized America’s technological prowess and egalitarianism.

I remember when I was a kid talking with other kids my age about being an astronaut. It was something each of us could aspire to if we had enough courage and common sense. The astronauts of this era came from middle class and blue collar families. They had gone to public schools. They were like all of us, but their bravery and skill justified their status as national heroes.

The space program itself was uniquely American. In a way, it seemed like we were all going to space, risking our lives for the nation and becoming the first to land on the moon. However, our pride was not of the nativist variety. We won the space race because we worked harder, longer, better. Our astronauts were supported by teams of scientists, aviation engineers and aerospace workers who took great pride in their work, and we are all proud of them. Time and time again, we have used the term “we” to describe achievement, a common good.

Today’s space race couldn’t be more different. Bezos, Branson and Elon Musk, the third billionaire to run in space, are not “us”. There is no common good in their achievement. Today they symbolize the extreme peak of wealth, part of which was acquired by paying paltry wages to their workers and excluding their competitors. They are closer to the robber barons of the early golden age – Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt and John D. Rockefeller – whose remarkable fortunes were founded on suppressing wages, fighting unions and monopolization, and whose toys were the first motor cars and airplanes. The new space adventurers 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 with admiration that “billionaire entrepreneurs risk injury or death to fulfill their childhood aspirations – and further the goal of making human spaceflight non-exceptional.” And he quoted Eric Anderson, president of Space Adventures Limited, a company that charters launches into orbit, as saying, “They put their money where their mouth is and they put their bodies where their money is. It’s impressive, frankly.

Waste. If Branson, Bezos, and Musk – or Eric Anderson, for that matter – are pushing anything or anyone forward, it’s the prospect of making big bucks selling future seats to other capable people and willing to pay huge sums for the thrill. At a time when America and the world face existential crises ranging from climate change and raging inequalities to deadly pandemics, these adventures in space are frankly not impressive.

While some kids today are inspired by Branson, Bezos and Musk, the inspiration is more about amassing money and power than about making the nation proud, more about propelling itself forward than to propel America or the world forward. Of course, it takes courage to get into a rocket alongside a few other billionaires who have paid tens of millions for this privilege, but it doesn’t come close to heroism.

We’ve privatized almost everything else, but no one can privatize heroism.

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