Billionaire adventurers need to be more than space cowboys

The emissions their rocket blast-offs leave behind must benefit mankind in the long run

Sadly, I have no idea what it must be like to be a billionaire. To be able to afford anything you wish, to not have to worry, to not give so much as a second glance at a restaurant bill, to go anywhere you fancy on a private jet, to cruise around in a superyacht must, truly, be wonderful.

All I can do is dream: what would I spend the dosh on, what would I be doing if I were in their position? It’s partly for this reason that rushing to condemn three billionaires, Sir Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, for devoting part of their fortunes to launching themselves and others into space is misplaced.

It’s their money, they can do as they wish. True, they may go to some trouble to reduce their tax bills, but be honest now, who doesn’t? Besides, unless I am missing something, they are not breaking the law. If we, as a society, don’t like rich folk minimising their dues then it’s up to us, up to our governments, to tighten the rules and close the loopholes.

Where I have an issue is with the emissions their rocket blast-offs leave behind. Eloise Marais, an associate professor of physical geography at University College London, reckons that on every space flight up to 300 tonnes of carbon dioxide are split between four or so passengers, compared with up to three tonnes of CO2 per passenger on a long-haul commercial airline flight.

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So far, of course, we’ve seen only two space trips – one by Branson, the other by Bezos – but as Marais says: “It [commercial space travel] doesn’t need to grow that much more to compete with other sources.”

Their plans are only excusable then, if their endgame is of such benefit to mankind to outweigh the harm.

Bezos’s declared aim is to put human beings on different planets and turn us into a “spacefaring civilisation”.

Meanwhile, manna from heaven for the climate change lobby and his critics, Bezos’s Amazon trucks continue to damage the one planet we’re currently obliged to live upon.

Branson, of course, does little better with his Virgin Atlantic long-haul airline.

Musk can lay claim to be more eco-friendly, having advanced the electric car, although the batteries and resources devoured in making a Tesla would not put him on the “green” side of the spectrum.

The charge can be made, then, with some justification, that this is three of the very richest guys in the world playing at being space cowboys, fulfilling their boyhood fantasies, when the money they’re lavishing could be put to more valuable use, like help saving the Earth, or alleviating poverty and inequality.

The fact they’ve turned their rush into some sort of macho rivalry adds to the unedifying spectacle.

Bezos has tweeted that Branson’s spacecraft are “airplane-sized”; Musk has tweeted that Bezos is a copycat and used a cat emoji. They’re charging fares as well. So, Bezos sold a place on his Blue Origin space company’s New Shepard rocket for $28 million in an online auction; Branson is charging a mere $250,000 for the chance to look at us from space.

Underneath the razzmatazz and being seen to indulge in what appears to be the latest example of boys outdoing each other for bigger and faster playthings, at a time when the rest of the population is grappling with the pandemic, not to mention heat domes and wildfires and horrendous flooding, there is a serious aspect.

The three are not alone. Space is opening up rapidly, to private companies and nations.

The days when it was a two-horse race between the US and Russia now seem distant. The US, in particular, is in danger of being caught out. Once reliant on co-operation, even with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, that has effectively ended with the Joe Biden era’s frostier relations.

The financially strapped American space agency, Nasa, would like it very much if the uber-rich could step up – Nasa has formed a close relationship with Musk’s SpaceX and the Tesla tycoon is building a landing craft for the Moon, to the agency’s instruction, and will be shuttling astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Russia has formed a space bond with China and the pair are to build a base on the Moon. China, meanwhile, is also targeting Mars, having sent a rover there and announced a human crew will be going to the Red Planet in 2033. It’s also constructing a spaceship capable of reaching 14.5 billion kilometres from Earth.

Against this increasingly competitive and fraught backdrop, and western governments that must cater for all sorts of social and economic needs and priorities, a shove or two from benign, if ego-centric, cash-heavy moguls is a blessing.

The worry is that the three are doing this for some ulterior purpose, that as the Earth is hit with melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels, they and their successors will be able to wave goodbye, take off and leave this increasingly troubled environment behind.

They deny that, of course. Instead, they play the good-of-mankind card, and if there is to be an escape route it will be available to the many, not just the lucky few. Yes, they want to bring in revenue in the process – these are not people who amassed their vast riches by giving money away.

But Bezos does not appear to be joking when he says: “What we’re really trying to do is build reusable space vehicles. It’s the only way to build a road to space, and we need to build a road to space so that our children can build the future.”

Perhaps most tellingly, the public, well the American public anyway, appear to agree. Despite numerous politicians weighing in to denounce the threesome and repeated widespread criticism, 72 per cent of Americans, according to Pew Research, believe the US should be striving to lead the world in space exploration.

The tendency is to view them as wealthy men dabbling in adventures. Look beyond that, however, and they are showing us what is possible, using their money to kick-start and to forge ahead.

As the saying among Nasa hands goes, “space is a place not a programme”. For now, they merit begrudging applause, becoming louder should they remain true to their word.

Published: July 28th 2021, 12:42 PM
Chris Blackhurst

Chris Blackhurst

Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, based in London