In the past three weeks, two billionaires, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, went to space. Or not-quite-space. In point of fact, they didn’t even make it: they reached a suborbital zone for a few minutes. They couldn’t accomplish what the Soviet Union managed to do 60 years ago, yet they received wall-to-wall media coverage. Amid the end (maybe?) of the pandemic, images of humans going to space might have been inspiring, a reminder of what we’re capable of. Instead, it feels irksome, maybe even a little outrageous and obscene. But mostly it’s kind of just dull.
Putting aside for a moment the big moral objections — “we have so many problems on Earth, poverty, climate change, Covid, we should focus our resources on what’s going on here, these guys exploited their workers and consumers to be able to do this”— I think what’s so annoying about billionaires going to space is that they make an awesome feat of human ingenuity all about them. We can’t celebrate it, or even take an interest, without taking part in aggrandizing these schmucks.
In the last Gilded Age, the robber barons like Henry Frick, J.P. Morgan, and William Randolph Hearst wanted to live up to their title and emulate the grandeur of the feudal past. They built themselves grand palaces and accumulated vast collections of cultural treasures. These were not good men, they were not even particularly deep or interesting, but they felt like they had to go to great lengths to suggest depth and taste, having the kind of inner life that’s only satisfied with the contemplation of beauty. As a result of these enormous pretensions, we have some great examples of architecture and their hordes of books, sculptures and paintings are now available to the public.
Our present day robber-barons lack even the imagination to suppose themselves dukes or princes. They are always at pains to remind us they are just regular guys: “See, I’m wearing a T-shirt and jeans. I’m wearing a cowboy hat, isn’t that fun?” So instead of halls of great oil paintings, what are you gonna get? Rows of little hydroponic tomatoes growing in some sterile space colony. It’s worth thinking about how instead of thirsting after the manifold wonders of form, color, and shape created over the centuries, they want to reach towards space, the void, emptiness.
You can argue that the original space race was just a proxy for the Cold War and the aggressive, imperialist projects of both the superpowers, but at least you could pretend that these two massive states represented humanity. On some level, the Soviet and American space programs both represented collective efforts to accomplish a goal and they represented different philosophical ideals of government and human nature itself, they were not just the vanity projects of businessmen.
When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, he said, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Now this is a bit trite at this point, but just compare this to Bezos’s vulgar joke on returning from his pseudo-space mission, “I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all of this.” I’ll take some majestic corniness any day over that sort of stuff. At least Branson made some gesture to universality, saying “We’re here to make space more accessible to all.” Then he announced a promotional sweepstakes to win a ticket to space. Ever the salesman.
No one except the most abject fanboys can look at Branson or Bezos in space and say to themselves, “That guy represents me, there goes mankind at its best.” When you criticize Branson or Bezos or Elon Musk, you usually get the response, “You’re just jealous,” which reveals the mentality of their admirers: they can only really understand wanting to be in their position, an attitude that occasions either envy or hero-worship. They can’t imagine any other way: “you’re either that guy or you want to be that guy, that’s the way the world works.” That’s a pretty sad worldview.
This all reveals the sterility and tastelessness of the Ayn Randian version of individuality, where the supreme egotism of great men is the only thing that brings good and interesting things into the world. On the contrary, egotism unwedded to some collective and shared project apparently just creates inferior copies of what we’ve accomplished as a society many years ago. Undoubtedly self-interest and egotism are unavoidable parts of the human condition, but they only become interesting when they are in tension with greater goals; when you even have to ask the question, “How much of this is just personal ambition and how much of this is really public spirited?” It’s probably not possible to answer that question in principle, but when it arises is when things get compelling.
It’s particularly dispiriting that these annoying guys have interjected themselves in space travel, with its overcoming of Earth’s bonds once symbolic of the possibility of human transcendence of our own limitations in general. Not anymore! It’s just branded content now. We can’t marvel even at the stars without seeing logos or these billionaire’s shit-eating grins all over our screens.
Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote in his 2020 book The Decadent Society that space travel was one of the possible ways out of what he calls modern “decadence,” its inability to accomplish anything bold or original. It’s looking now like the sad, pointless continuation of decadence masked as something more profound.
Maybe this is inevitable. Space travel will gradually just become banal and commercialized, and outer space will go from the subject of our grandest hopes and dreams to becoming a tourist destination or even a massive garbage dump. Still, I think there’s something encouraging in the fact that the billionaires have not even really reached space yet. There’s still something beyond their reach.
John Ganz is a writer in New York.