Fifty-two years ago this Tuesday, our frequently fractious world was brought together for a moment of wonder.
People in every corner of the globe watched live television footage of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon, becoming the first human being to plant their boots somewhere other than Earth. It happened late on a Sunday night, and some parents pulled their young children out of bed so they could witness an epochal moment in human history. Older people who were born before the invention of the telephone also watched, amazed at the strides humanity had made in their lifetimes.
A half-century later, space flight is back in the news, but this time around it’s more about human excess than human accomplishment. On Tuesday, Amazon founder and mega-billionaire Jeff Bezos is set to be the second member of an extraordinarily well-heeled coterie to be catapulted to the edge of space. It will be a quick thrill ride more hair-raising than any attraction at Kennywood while costing many, many, many times more than premium admission to the West Mifflin amusement park. Last weekend, British magnate Richard Branson became the first billionaire to almost slip the surly bonds of Earth when he took his much-publicized, Mach 3 journey into the heavens.
The likes of Branson and Bezos say they are inaugurating a new age of space tourism, where people will be able to look down on our orb and experience weightlessness and, later on, perhaps even journey to the moon or beyond. This all sounds buccaneering and forward-looking, but the reality is this: this is about hubris, pure and simple.
This is about the well-to-do finding new ways to burn their money. As Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik put it, the flights are a big deal “for anyone mourning the demise of the TV show ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,’ which ran out its string more than 15 years ago.”
He added, “The competition to be the first billionaire in space should mark a milestone in the towering vanity of the wealthy.”
Bezos is going to joined on his trip by an Ohio real estate developer who placed a winning bid in an auction. It will set the developer back $28 million. It’s anticipated that seats on these flights will eventually come down, running “only” about $250,000 apiece.
Can you imagine what else could be done with $28 million? It’s easy if you try. It could build a couple of elementary schools or a middle school in communities that need them. It could help provide clean water in parts of the United States and world lacking it, it could help eradicate disease, and help get the COVID-19 vaccine to parts of the world that are clamoring for it. With thousands of people still dying annually from hunger, it could put a lot of food in a lot of bellies.
And if good deeds are not your thing, art and rare books seem like more sound investments.
No, space exploration is absolutely not a waste. The missions going back to the days of John Glenn and the Mercury astronauts have had scientific value and have been carried out by personnel who have received years of training. Reaching the moon showcased our ingenuity at its fullest.
But space tourism? It’s just another status symbol to notch.