What's the point of the billionaire space race again?

Blue Origin YouTube chaneel

This morning, Jeff Bezos became the second billionaire in as many weeks to fly into space on a rocket of his own creation. Along with three other crew members, including one paying passenger, the Blue Origin spaceship New Shepard, barely broke the recognized boundary line where the Earth’s atmosphere ends and space begins. The crew capsule was floating free and experiencing close to zero gravity for two to three minutes. Thankfully, the whole thing seemed to go off without a hitch and the capsule touched down under multiple parachutes a little more than seven minutes later. (I’ll include the replay below in case you missed it.) But now that everyone is safely back on the ground, I wanted to once again address a question that’s been making the rounds ever since Richard Branson took his flight last week. What’s the point of all this? (USA Today)

Billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his New Shepard rocket crew blasted off Tuesday from the West Texas desert, reached space and returned to Earth with a smooth parachute landing minutes later.

“Best day ever,” Bezos said after landing.

The crew was treated to spectacular views of Earth from space along with three or four minutes of weightlessness. The booster rocket touched down smoothly about seven minutes after liftoff. The craft containing the astronauts landed with parachutes a few minutes later.

“Congratulations to all of Team Blue past and present on reaching this historic moment in spaceflight history,” tweeted Bezos’ space tourism company, Blue Origin. “This first astronaut crew wrote themselves into the history books of space, opening the door through which many after will pass.”

I suppose congratulations are in order for both Bezos and Branson. They had both wanted to go into space for all of their lives and now they’ve done it. But are these ventures really doing any good for anyone but them and the .0001 percent of the population who can afford that sort of vacation?

First of all, neither of the craft in question remains “in space” for more than a few minutes, so let’s not pretend that a lot of science is getting done. It’s not. Yes, they’ll send some “experiments” along with the crew to make it look useful, but let’s be honest here. This is all about space tourism. At least when Elon Musk sends up his rockets on an almost weekly basis, he’s taking scientists to the ISS or launching satellites.

Bezos’s spokesperson gave a cheery speech about how this flight opened a door “through which many after will pass.” But how many, exactly? Blue Origin is hoping to do as many as five flights per year in the near future and possibly more. Let’s say they bump that up to ten. It’s a four-passenger capsule. So that would be 40 people in a year on a planet of nearly 8 billion people. And most of those people will be extremely wealthy paying customers. Sure, they’ll set aside a couple of seats that might be given away in a lottery or dedicated to some sort of “Make-a-Wish” charity function, but that’s just for show. Space tourism will still not be a possibility for anyone aside from a select few.

Also, while I’m praying to not jinx anyone, it’s likely very near a certainty that when these flights are happening nearly every month, eventually something is going to go wrong. And it may go spectacularly wrong. Even Elon Musk managed to blow up a few rockets this year and he’s been putting stuff into orbit for years. What’s going to be the response of the government and NASA (who coordinates on all of these flights) if four tourists are lost in a fireball? Will they shut the programs down in the name of safety as we did with the shuttle program after the Challenger disaster?

Can they even shut down a private company that way? I doubt they could order the company to close for non-COVID reasons, but they could deny them clearance to traverse the airspace. That would basically end the companies by default.

Or perhaps we’ve reached the point of maturity where people will simply admit that space travel is not only hard, but it’s dangerous as well. Perhaps adults (including stupidly rich ones) deserve the right to sacrifice their lives in the name of seeking adventure. I think that may be more likely. After all, skydiving is still legal and dozens, if not hundreds of people die attempting it every year.

I suppose all of this space tourism is harmless enough unless one of the rockets crashes into a populated area. But I can’t really get excited about this being the dawn of some new era of science and exploration. These two companies are just nibbling at the edge of space travel as a business. At least SpaceX is actually accomplishing something productive.

Here’s the replay of the launch and recovery from the Blue Origin YouTube channel. It’s not all that long and I’ve cued it up to begin shortly before the engines fire.