Welcome to the new space age: the rich using earth as a trampoline and returning to lecture us

·3-min read
 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

A few weeks ago Londoners glancing up from sweaty commutes through Nine Elms began to notice a new development: a transparent pool hanging between two buildings. It had been designed to allow the rich to soak in luxury while — as if to add piquancy to the experience — looking down on everyone else and rubbing it in their faces. It was at once a perfect symbol of everything that is wrong with London’s massive wealth divides and architectural priorities. Is it any wonder if some of us spent a few days in morbid speculation as to just how safe that see-through floor was?

As with the Sky Pool, so with the sky itself. Jeff Bezos has touched a new frontier this week: space trips not as scientific exploration but as holidays. He spent his 10-minute flight to the edge of space beaming enthusiastic messages back down to the rest of us — “Best. Day. Ever”, “happy, happy, happy” — and then, back on earth, told us: “You guys paid for all of this”. (A petition to make him stay up there had reached 185,000 signatures).

If you think watching billionaires have a brilliant time in space while the rest of us boil on the Tube is irritating, just you wait. All this is paving the way for space tourism - but only for the very wealthy. Virgin is currently selling tickets to the edge of space for $250,000. Blue Origin, Bezos’s space company, has sold nearly $100 million in future passenger flights. Soon there will be many more rich people essentially using earth as a trampoline and then coming back down to lecture us about how fragile it looks from up there.

That was Bezos’s key revelation, anyway. “When you get up above it, what you see is that it’s actually incredibly thin, it’s this tiny little fragile thing and as we move about the planet we are damaging it,” he said. “It’s one thing to recognise it intellectually; it’s another to see that with your own eyes.” Amazon emitted the equivalent of 60 million metric tons of CO2 in 2020.

But of course, the cost of this kind of grand realisation is yet more damage to the planet. The impact of each flight may not be much but they will add up. Branson’s spaceship released both toxic and greenhouse gasses — climate scientists have estimated that per passenger mile the carbon emissions were about 60 times that of a business class flight. Bezos used liquid hydrogen, which does not emit carbon when burned, but does when produced. The best thing climate-minded celebrities can do for the planet has long been to have a simple sit-down talk with their mates about their private jets. We can expect to extend that to private space-flights.

But the most galling aspect of the coming space age might be that the earth-bound will be expected to view rich people pretending to be astronauts as some sort of inspiration. “What we are doing here is the first step of something big”, Bezos said on Tuesday. He wants to “increase access to space”. Branson, for his part, wants to “open space to everyone”. Not at those prices.

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