Jeff Bezos with a model of Blue Origin's Blue Moon lunar lander in Washington, left, and Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo space tourism rocket in Mojave, Calif.
( AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Mark J. Terrill
Melissa Harris-Perry: On Sunday, Virgin Galactic founder, Richard Branson, launched into space on a rocket he helped fund. On July 20th, Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, is bound for space on a Blue Origin spacecraft. No word as to whether he'll be taking Prime delivery items with him. To be honest, okay, I'm hating just a little because space sounds so cool. A sentiment shared by some of our callers.
Jesse: Hi, this is Jesse from Marstown. I would go the space in a hot second. I would love to feel weightlessness. I would love to see our beautiful blue marble from a distance.
Melissa: The cost of these commercial trips to the outer edge of Earth's atmosphere come with an astronomical price tag that concerns some of our callers.
Tommy: This is Tommy B. I'm honestly sickened by the billionaire's race to space since it should be a race to end hunger, poverty, the water crisis, and other problems on this earth.
Melissa: I got to say, as a bit of a space nerd, I don't mind the big dollars, but I am concerned that space brought to us by Branson and Bezos may not fulfill my Afro-futurist dream, a sentiment similarly articulated during a 1978 Tonight Show criticism of Star Wars by the late great Carl Sagan.
Johnny Carson: They did have a scene in Star Wars with a lot of strange characters.
Carl Sagan: Yes, but none of them seem to be in charge of the galaxy. Everybody in charge of the galaxy seem to look like us.
Melissa: For more on the good, bad, and white of the Billionaire Space Race is Shannon Stirone, a freelance science writer writing about the expanding private space industry. Shannon just wrote an article for the Atlantic titled Space Billionaires, Please Read the Room. Welcome to the show, Shannon.
Shannon Stirone: Thanks for having me.
Melissa: This is a landmark moment for the commercial space industry and space enthusiasts, but what are some of the critiques?
Shannon: We can't really ignore that these are billionaires having this obnoxious ego space race while we're in the middle of a pandemic. Read the Room is maybe don't do that right now until everyone has vaccines. We watched Branson go to space on Sunday and he had one giant long infomercial for Virgin Galactic. This is not what going to space should feel like.
Melissa: What should going to space feel like?
Shannon: I think going to space is one of the most noble and wonderful things that humans can do. Because it is usually after the Cold War has been in the pursuit of knowledge and scientific research. Having these guys racing each other just to see who can be first, takes away that layer of goodness.
Melissa: I'm wondering if that layer of goodness as you describe it, is in part the sense that is a collective endeavor, right? That we went to the moon, that we orbit in space, that we are hanging out together in a way when it's NASA when it's our government, the thing that we are paying into. It's a little different than when it's been offloaded to private industry in this way.
Shannon: Absolutely. Even the Apollo program, which was, of course, our own country's egotistical battle against the Soviets was still a collective we, like you said. It's still a country together trying to do some things. We all felt like, "Okay, we're doing this as one nation." In addition to the fact that a ticket on Richard Branson's space plane is a quarter of a million dollars and the fourth seat on Jeff Bezos's flight-- Someone bid 28 million to have that seat. This is not a collective thing. This is a 1% thing.
Melissa: Even when we refer in a collective NASA space race, there was real critiques about what Gil Scott-Heron called Whitey on the Moon.
Gil Scott-Heron: How come I ain't got no money here? Whitey's on the moon. You know I just about had my fill of Whitey on the moon. I think I'll send these doctor bills, airmail special.
Melissa: This idea that there were real problems happening on earth and we were expending effort in the stars. For many of us, we felt like, "Well, can't we do both?" Are there costs to this private space race that can't be offset in the way that we made those arguments, say 50 or 60 years ago?
Shannon: I think that we absolutely can do both and we should do both. While at that time, it was with a purpose of evading war and just trying to show our technological prowess, this is not a country trying to show that which doesn't really make it any better. This is two particular people. If we add in Elon Musk, that's a third. That separates us from that excitement that we felt because NASA did pretty quickly transition into a science-focused government program.
I think that there is of course room to do both. These aren't just privately funded rockets. The space fort that Richard Branson operates out of the Mojave Desert, 200 million US tax dollars were used to fund that. Jeff Bezos has also received government assistance. Their main goal is not scientific research, it's a profitable business.
Melissa: What about the environmental impacts of these trips?
Shannon: I think doing these one-off trips here and there aren't so significant that it's worth really getting upset over. In their ideal future, they're going to be selling these tickets all the time and going up all the time. That I think, causes a real ethical issue with the fact that we are really in the middle of the climate crisis with no sight of that ending. They're putting out a significant amount of emissions into the atmosphere when they go on these joy rides. I think we're going to run into a problem if they become successful.
Melissa: There are astronauts who have talked about going into space and gaining an even greater compassion and excitement for our big blue marble when they see it from above. Is it possible that these trips could, in fact, encourage the kind of environmentalism among the uber wealthy?
Shannon: Absolutely, the overview effect is a very real thing. While these suborbital flights don't go quite high enough, they're not up long enough to really give them the impact that the Apollo astronauts experience, or those who go to the International Space Station. I think we saw a glimpse of that when Richard Branson landed. He made that speech while he was clearly high on adrenaline and said-
Richard Branson: We've got to all be doing everything we can to help this incredible planet we live on.
Shannon: I think that you have to be a certain type of person to not be profoundly affected by seeing that perspective. I think if there's one huge potential benefit, the people who do have the most power, who have the most money, going up to the edge of space and seeing how beautiful and precious our planet is, and maybe being changed, maybe coming back and saying, "I need to do more. I need to do something to help because how special is this place?"
Melissa: Shannon Stirone, a freelance science writer. Be sure to check out her piece in The Atlantic, "Space Billionaires, Please Read the Room." Thank you, Shannon.
Shannon: Thank you.
Jay: It's Jay from Freetown, Massachusetts. I don't like to drive over bridges or through tunnels, so space? No, thank you.
Dakota: Hello, this is Dakota from Tampa, Florida. I would travel to space this second and abandon my entire life in a heartbeat. Don't worry, I don't have kids. I'd want to see anything and everything, to explore strange new worlds.
Matt: Hi, I'm Matt from Downingtown, Pennsylvania. I would go to space in a heartbeat just to see the Milky Way without the filter of Earth's atmosphere. A character with whom I most sympathize in science fiction is D.D. Harriman in Heinlein's, The Man Who Sold The Moon. That's an old man about my age. He finally got to go to the moon, even though he knew it might kill him. He died there happily. You got to love the moon.
Sam: This is Sam Nugent from Mauldin, South Carolina. No, I wouldn't go to space. Too many things I want to see here on Earth. I'd rather spend the money on that.
Scott: Hi, this is Scott Cybers from Excelsior, Minnesota. I would absolutely love to go into space. I would love to go 50 plus miles above the Earth. See the curvature of the earth. look at the oceans from 50 miles above the Earth.
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