Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The first billionaires in space - yawn!

I'm getting a bit tired of reading about the "billionaires' race to space". As Richard Branson narrowly beat out Jeff Bezos as the first billionaire in space - like there is a specific entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for this - and the mainstream media salivates over the youngest person in space and the oldest person in space (and probably the shortest person in space, or the first person in space with diabetes, for all I know), I am getting more and more bored and indeed more and more resentful.

Why does anyone really care what Richard Branson does in his spare time. Yes, they are going to space, technically, although the very closest and easiest execution of that definition, and for all of ten minutes (three minutes of weightlessness). A moonshot this is not. It's not even "outer space", really - the earth's thermosphere, the outer part of its atmosphere proper, extends to about 435 miles (700km) out, and the exospehere technically continues way beyond that, to around 6,200 miles (10,000km). Branson's and Bezos' trips, by comparison, are to 50 and 62 miles (80km and 100km) above the earth respectively, and even the International Space Station is only about 250 miles (400km). 

Bezos made it to the Kármán Line, the imaginary line that is often conveniently used as the boundary between aeronatics and astronautics, Branson not even that far (just enough to induce a little weightlessness). In fact, neither Bezos nor Branson may qualify for their "astronaut wings" under the US Federal Aviation Authority's Commercial Astronaut Wings Program, which used to automatically apply at 50 miles (80km) above the earth, because, on the very same day that Bezos flew, the FAA changed their policy and included a requirement for "activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human flight safety". So, just paying a lot of money and being a tourist no longer qualifies.

And incidentally, for what it's worth, they are actually not even the first billionaires in space: Microsoft software engineer Charles Simonyi travelled on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station way back in 2007, and then again in 2009.

And the more I think about how much these trips are costing - yes, I know they can afford it, they are not short of a bob or two - the more I think how solipsistic and how vain they are, and how much better that much money could have been spent. Flights on Virgin Galactic's "space" flights are expected to sell for about a quarter of a million dollars when they become publicly available, but Branson himself obviously didn't pay that. Virgin Galactic's market value shot up $841 million after Branson's ego-trip. A public auction for a seat on Bezos' flight went for $28 million. Bezos even had the temerity to "jokingly" thank Amazon employees and customers for paying for his trip. Har-de-har, Jeff. Three people have already signed up to pay $55 million for an eight-day stay on the International Space Station, although that at least is closer to actual space, rather than just a rather high plane journey.

I'm not alone in thinking that these trips are the ultimate exercise in futility and vanity, in a world beset with a climate emergency, raging wildfires, devastating floods, crushing poverty, oh, and a pandemic that is still killing thousands as we speak. Buy, hey, you can't stand in the way of progress and economic development...

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