Whitey in the High Sky
Someone - I don't know who it was originally cause I've seen it on social media too many times now - compared Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic flight the other day to Gil Scott-Heron's poem Whitey on the Moon and I just about fell out because, yeah, that sounds about right.
I'm not against space exploration. This post isn't about that. I think it's one of the major accomplishments of human ingenuity. It's representative of humanity's creativity, problem-solving, and imagination. And obviously it has had real, consequential positive impacts on our lives. All around us are bits of technology - large and small - that we can thank the various space programs for.
But I'm not sure a billionaire space race accomplishes the same benefits. Who will benefit from Virgin Galactic normalizing space tourism aside from Richard Branson and a couple other already-ridiculously-wealthy people? What largess will Jeff Bezos distribute to the masses when he looks down on Earth from orbit? It's a common complaint, but as billionaires hoard wealth like Smaug on his pile of gold and invest in vanity projects, could we all get a bit of that and maybe fully fund schools, invest in culture and the arts, fix our crumbling infrastructure, house the unhoused and feed the hungry? Oh, no, you'd rather pay to fly to space. Color me shocked.
(Side eye moment: Branson didn't even go to space? He just went really high in the atmosphere? Upper atmosphere? High sky? Lame sauce.)
NASA astronaut Col. Doug Wheelock said of viewing Earth from space
Flying in space and being able to see our earth, our home, in the perspective from space, it changes everything about you. We always say that we can't see boarders from space, and you can't, but you can see where the water is when it gets dark. ... You can look down on the mosaics of lights on the continents where people live. ... You begin to think about our significance in the cosmos and what a wonderful place we have. ... [You] look at our own Earth and figure out how we can take better care of this planet.
Other astronauts have expressed similar feelings after seeing our planet against the backdrop of blackness that these billionaires are racing each other to experience. Maybe they'll look down on our shared planet and think "hey, maybe I shouldn't try to actively stop unionization at my work sites" or "maybe I should pay my workers a living wage and let them have safe and healthy working conditions" or something. I don't know. I doubt it.
So yeah, I guess congratulations to Branson and Bezos and Musk and all the other Lex Luthor wannabees. I'll be grooving along to Gil Scott-Heron and thinking about all us humans on Earth.