Rocket men

An Cailín Rua

FULL THRUST Jeff Bezos and his crew taking off on July 20 aboard his rocket, ‘New Shepard’. Pic: Blue Origin

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

“One very small step for mankind, one giant ego trip for Jeff Bezos,” wrote Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian. Her words came days after the Amazon oligarch launched himself into space in what resembled a giant penis while wearing a cowboy hat.
Jeff might indeed have been projecting, but much like Elon Musk and Richard Branson before him, the Flight of the Billionaire – sorry, Centibillionaire – has provoked a fascinating discussion on the potential of space travel, shining a light on the technology advances that mean talk of colonising planets is no longer restricted to science fiction movies.
When I was in primary school, I was certain I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. Despite having no aptitude for science and quite a distaste for maths, the dream of blasting through the atmosphere on a rocket ship to float in darkness and silence among the stars was thrillingly seductive.
Did these rich men have similar dreams? When they were growing up, were their ceilings also festooned with glow-in-the-dark stars? Did a thirst for progress, spurred on by (inter)stellar levels of ambition fuel their flight? Or was their enthusiasm for intergalactic travel simply borne out of a healthy capitalist greed?    
It is easy to dismiss private space travel as arrogant and self-satisfying, and the argument remains that the money spent on space travel – in this case, well over $5 billion – could probably be spent rather usefully on the ground. “I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer,” beamed Bezos, still in his cowboy hat, upon returning to earth. “You guys paid for all this.”
They sure did. Amazon’ notoriously poor reputation around tax avoidance and employee welfare and safety means its business model is thinly disguised, designed to make its owner one of the richest in the universe.
There’s something undeniably distasteful about an obnoxiously wealthy man launching himself into space off the backs of his subordinates. But rich people are entitled to spend their millions as they wish, and some interesting motivations lie behind the development of their space enterprises.
Branson, who beat Bezos to the launchpad by nine days, is enthused at the prospect of suborbital tourism. No stranger to exploiting a good travel-business opportunity, Branson suspects that there may be a demand for rocket technology as a means of moving people rapidly between cities on Earth. A bit like Concorde on speed.
It is no surprise given his background that Bezos sees space and other planets as a resource for men like him to exploit; a place of ‘heavy industry’ for extracting and mining resources for manufacturing on Earth. Space, he maintains, can support infinite numbers of humans, once the Earth’s resources have been depleted. Earth, he insists can then be a beautiful place of residency and light.
Whether he has considered the impact of an exponential rise in space travel on the environment is unclear.
Musk, who has yet to visit space, is keen to corner what he sees as an emerging private-sector market in shuttling crew and cargo to space stations, an opportunity created by cuts to the public funding of NASA’s space-flight programme. He, too, sees the future of humanity as dependent on its ability to settle on another planet.
While the benefits of space travel and technology can seem too abstract for the ordinary mortal to comprehend, its prospects are surprising.
There are opportunities to provide high-speed broadband to those who would otherwise be unable to access it. Satellites can be used to track crop health, rainforest loss and pollution.
Recently, student Decker Eveleth was able to alert the US Department of State to a weapons stockpile in a Chinese desert, having scoured modern satellite imagery from his bedroom amid rumours that China was building its nuclear weaponry arsenal.
Most significantly though, advances in commercial space travel, like the technology advances of decades ago that we now take for granted, prove that as a race, we humans are constantly advancing, learning, challenging, dreaming and striving for more. Be it for better or worse, and at any cost. And what these men are doing now will inspire a future generation to bigger things again.
For now, the final frontier has been breached. Space is open for business. Save me a seat.