When it comes to money, specifically large sums like millions or billions of dollars, it is not easy for the average wage earner to imagine such amounts. Tens, maybe a few hundreds of thousands to set aside for a car or an apartment are still realistic, many of us will be working with such amounts at some point. What about a million dollars? Slightly less viable, but an average person would probably come up with what you could buy with such money. Yet, things get rather abstract when somebody mentions a sum bigger than a few million. After all, how many of us, average consumers, would be able to explain right off the bat what the value of, say, $5.5 billion is?
Jeffrey Bezos, the richest man in the world, comes to our rescue. In the second half of July, the world held its breath—or so I’m told—as Jeff buggered off into space for a moment, on a flight worth no less and no more than $5.5 billion. Lamentably, Amazon employees themselves did not get a chance to watch his accomplishment. Their breaks are not long enough to visit the bathroom or have a meal, let alone marvel at the cosmic tourism of the filthy rich. But Bezos had by no means forgotten them; after all, the billionaire proudly declared upon his return that it was his employees who paid for the four-minute sojourn outside Earth’s atmosphere. They did it with their labor.
Bezos has a total net worth of $200 billion, so it’s not like the exclusive space flight affected his daily budget. He’s got plenty left. Although Bezos’ supporters see his action as a milestone in the colonization of space, skeptics see this whole thing more as a “rocket” measuring contest between two incredibly rich guys who happen to dream of exploring space and becoming richer. The 70-year-old Brit, Richard Branson, visited the Earth’s orbit just 9 days before Bezos. And let’s not forget about the owner of NASA commissioned SpaceX, Elon Musk, who has long reiterated that space, and in particular the possible conquest of Mars, is a symbol of hope for many.
After all, there is no shortage of space enthusiasts. For years, celebrities, influencers, and determined individuals have been saving up for a trip through the void. Those, who can possibly afford it, that is. Some try to argue that the advances in space tourism development are not only for the egos of the rich but also for the general good of humanity. Nonetheless, leading astrophysicists believe that it is not the immensely wealthy individuals and their corporations, but states and governments that are better suited to conduct long-term research and investment in all things space. Even those who do not reject the idea of future space travel per se caution us against harboring illusory hopes that any of the recent space flights will contribute anything significant to scientific knowledge. Unless the goal is to set a new standard for how much time and effort it takes to get rid of superfluous sums of money when you have more than you’ll ever need.
For those struggling with the countless challenges facing humanity here, on this planet, it is not easy to see much benefit or value in orbiting the Earth, or the amounts of money allocated to do so. Just a few decades ago, the richest factions of humanity would race to see who had a faster car, shinier yacht, a bigger pool, and—since women were still considered a commodity—a younger wife. Now, the competition has taken on both cosmic proportions and character. Critics of the super-rich lay claim that their actions are morally questionable as there is so much left to do here, on Earth. Others suggest that individuals like Bezos, Branson, and Musk should actually benefit from space travel, as long as they… stay there. Millionaires should not exist […], on Earth nor in space, but if they choose the latter, they should stay there — pleaded the initiator of a petition signed by over 150,000 Internet users.
First and foremost, as critics note, long before the outbreak of the global coronavirus pandemic, the levels of world hunger began to increase due to ongoing armed conflicts, economic stagnation in many regions of the world, and the ever-increasing impact of climate change on the agricultural sector. The global spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has accelerated this trend, destabilizing labor markets and production chains, and hampering humanitarian efforts. No wonder, then, that David Beasley, the head of the World Food Program (UN), which distributes food to the world’s poorest regions, suggested that the next billions from the super-rich could be put into emergency relief, here and now. In a tweet published in late June, Beasley simultaneously called on Bezos, Branson, and Musk to collectively donate $6 billion needed to help 41 million people at risk of starvation this year in 43 countries around the world.
Second, attention should be drawn to the ecological costs we all pay as inhabitants of the Earth, while multi-billionaires fly off into space. Especially now, when unstoppable fires are destroying forests not only in faraway Australia and California but also (for me, as a European) close by, in Greece. Now, when the inexorably melting permafrost is exposing a kaleidoscope of bacteria, microbes, and deadly pathogens like plague and anthrax. Bezos’ and Branson’s space flights have had enormous environmental implications. That is why those who would rather avoid the total destruction of our planet suggest that another $5.5 billion of the Amazon founder’s money could be spent on investing in renewable energy or restoring ecosystems rapidly disappearing from our planet. Not to mention doing something about the hundreds of thousands of “space junk” pieces that already fill the Earth’s orbital belt.
Last but not least, it must be remembered that while pandemic has been taking away the lives or livelihoods of millions of people around the world, Bezos’ personal fortune doubled. In the United States alone, more than half a hundred new billionaires emerged, and their combined wealth has tripled to nearly $5 trillion. To put that in perspective, that’s a five with twelve zeros — $5,000,000,000,000. For people representing such gigantic fortunes, $5.5 billion to fly around the world in a spaceship is worth as much as a pack of chips to a person with a salary below the national average. Still, that kind of money could fund 100% of the intergovernmental COVAX program, which reduces disparities in access to the COVID-19 vaccine amongst the world’s population. For the equivalent of one flight into space, 2 billion people could get fully vaccinated.
No matter how small a fraction of the wealth of the super-rich may be required to support the earthly problems of humanity, there will always be those who say that it is not for us to decide what one billionaire or another spends his money on. So what if a billionaire wants to blow his fortune on a trip to outer space? After all, he worked hard for it, and it is his decision alone what to do with it. You can’t argue with that, but only as long as we are talking about the results of one’s independent labor. No matter how much corporate tycoons may echo their industriousness and diligence, a billion-dollar fortune is never achieved by the work of one’s own hands and mind. Somewhere along the way, they will either exploit the natural resources of this planet or those who work hard for the cosmic journeys of their corporate bosses.
Some would say that Bezos and Branson’s private space race is the essence of capitalism, where innovation chases innovation. Ambition drives expansion and exploration. The primal desire to escape humanity’s humble beginnings and reach for a different horizon awakens. In this way, space travel is a natural extension of the modern obsession with economic growth. It is the crown jewel of capitalism. But what if it contributes nothing special to the advancement of science, the improvement of health, and the well-being of society? Solutions to curb global climate catastrophe and deadly disease remain far more accessible than escaping Earth. Perhaps—if I may offer my piece of mind to anyone with unimaginable wealth—it would be worthwhile to put aside childhood dreams of interplanetary travel, and grow up to face the here and now.
This commentary was originally published by Marta Agnieszka Bednarczyk on August 10, 2021, on the Polish-language program of Lithuanian Public Radio, LRT Klasika. The original version of this article is available here.