We need to talk about rich people traveling into space.
On Sunday, Virgin Galactic founder and large-amounts-of-money-having human Richard Branson rode his own rocket to the edge of space, soaring more than 50 miles above the planet then descending without jettisoning billions of dollars in cash to the people below, many of whom face food insecurity and can’t afford basic health care.
Following Branson’s suborbital flight, space will remain Earth-billionaire-free until July 20, when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos climbs aboard his own rocket and takes to the heavens with a plan to travel slightly higher than the Virgin Galactic craft. (The first rule of Billionaire Space Adventurer Club is you must return to the planet with an ego larger than all who’ve gone before you.)
Advanced alien life-forms watching from afar, assuming they have a rudimentary understanding of life on our planet, might think the people of Earth finally grew tired of certain uber-wealthy denizens and are trying, and failing, to cast them out. Or perhaps they would think the uber-wealthy are trying, and failing, to escape Earth for planets where they could pay even less in taxes, as if such a thing is possible.
Truthfully, I’m not concerned with what advanced alien life-forms think about the off-and-on placement of wealthy people in the upper reaches of our atmosphere. What troubles me is space tourism and the possibility that we’ll allow wealthy people to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for quick suborbital trips without making them feel guilty.
Before going on, I’d like to stress I have no problem with rich people. When the revolution comes, I’m sure they’ll taste delicious.
I also have no problem with space exploration. Space is exceedingly cool and space travel is awesome. Anyone who says otherwise never sat in a theater as a child in 1977 watching “Star Wars” and thinking, eloquently: “Whoa.”
NASA astronauts and engineers who have stretched the boundaries of our stargazing dreams and imaginations are heroic. They are also not space billionaires, and they’ve certainly never been space tourists.
That’s an important line to draw in the lunar soil.
Branson, Bezos and SpaceX founder Elon Musk are undoubtedly contributing to humanity’s continued exploration of space, moving the heretofore government-funded work into the private arena. SpaceX has partnered with NASA to build “the first commercial human lander that will safely carry the next two American astronauts to the lunar surface.”
But whatever greater aspirations these men might have—sustainable life off-planet, trips to Mars, etc.—the immediate goal is getting tourists paying to put their fannies in spacecraft seats. According to The Associated Press, “Virgin Galactic already has more than 600 reservations from would-be space tourists, with tickets initially costing $250,000 apiece.”
That’s $250,000 for a relatively swift up-and-down flight that gives you a few minutes of weightlessness on the edge of space. And that’s where I—a person who feels strongly about humans having potable drinking water, shelter, access to a good education and enough food to eat—start to get a bit twitchy.
I don’t want to get into tax laws or the (perfectly reasonable) idea that wealthy people, be they space entrepreneurs like Bezos and Co. or space tourists who can swing a quarter-million-dollar ticket, should be paying more than, say, everyone else.
But I would submit that anyone who can sink billions or millions or even a cool couple hundred thousand into space travel should be pressured to donate an equal amount of scratch to areas of earthbound need. Consider this slogan: “Make the World Better Before You Leave the Ground.”
That has excellent T-shirt potential. And it doesn’t seem unreasonable.
If the first space tourists on Virgin Galactic’s 600-person list make donations matching the cost of their tickets, everyone else will feel pressured to do the same. No one wants to go down in history as the first Space Scrooge.
I know many folks wealthy enough to build spacecrafts or buy tickets to ride them already do good things with their money. But if they’re doing good things with their money and still have enough to build spacecrafts or buy tickets to space, they can surely afford to do a little more.
It would be one small step for a space tourist. And one giant leap for humankind.
Rex Huppke is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.