It’s one small step for man, but one giant leap for Jeff Bezos. The Amazon founder/God-king returned safely yesterday from an 11-minute flight into space, in which he travelled in a rocket while dressed as a kind of mad cowboy. When asked how it felt to have joined the ten thousand mile high club, Bezos gushed that it was the “Best. Day. Ever!”
The response from the earth-bound press was swift and brutal. Bezos, already unpopular as a result of his horrendously unethical business practices, had truly joined the ranks of most selfish capitalists in history, alongside Steve Jobs (who thought philanthropy was nonsense) and William Vanderbilt (notorious for exclaiming “the public be damned! I only care about my property”).
Bezos, we were told, was a living symbol of capitalist excess. While his workers are left to urinate in plastic bottles, he gets to take a joyride into the stratosphere. How could anyone justify propelling a rocket into the sky in the middle of the climate crisis? Doesn’t he know how many people are starving in the world? According to Jacobin magazine Bezos is nothing more than a “parasite”.
But the rush to analyse Bezos’s decision to travel into the stratosphere as anything more than a boyish wish fulfilment fantasy is frustrating. Was this really all about social inequality and neoliberal excess?
Spacefaring is a highly exclusive enterprise. Only 553 people have ever travelled past the von Karman line that separates Earth from space, after all. This is a tiny, tiny fraction of humanity, but is ironically still too high for us earthbound citizens to properly enjoy: Bezos isn’t crossing a new frontier. Neil Armstrong did it first, and better. What is left behind from a billionaire’s rocket ship launch? Is the human spirit expanded in any meaningful way?
Then again, it may well be that these early experiments in commercial spaceflight will one day become accessible to normal people. Fellow billionaires Elon Musk and Richard Branson have both announced their intentions to make commercial space flight happen. ‘Space tourism’ is quickly moving out of the realms of science fiction, and we may one day find a journey to Mars as scintillating as a trip to IKEA.
It takes a small mind to curse at every technological marvel, every pinnacle of human achievement, and to twist every world-historic moment into a cheap ‘gotcha!’ about capitalism. Does Chartres Cathedral’s magnificence cheapen the message ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God?’