Growing up, we are frequently asked, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” As children, our hopes and dreams may be farfetched or perceived as unobtainable. Answers like movie star, president, and astronaut are common in the young, not-yet-jaded, mind. The beautiful thing about these answers is they signify a yearning for life and an aptitude for discovering a purpose, yet they are often met with a chuckle, a raised eyebrow, or a lecture about the hard work and dedication it takes to get into these positions, and even then, it’s not guaranteed. It takes huge amounts of education, training, research, and skill. It takes the support of whole cultures, nations, governments to make great strides toward shared purpose. To expand the human project past its bounds, as we have always done.
Unless you’re a billionaire. The billionaire race to space is at full throttle. Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk have all jumped to fly, using tropes of friendly competition to justify huge expenditures. Rockets have been launched, and we have seen photos, videos, and interviews recapping their out-of-this-world experience. The masses have watched as the richest men in the world look down on us from their spaceships, enjoying an experience so few will be able to enjoy. While many have celebrated these private sector innovations in space travel, I feel an overwhelming unease.
Why does this trend bother me so much? Because the billionaire race to space has cheapened space—ironically, considering how much money has been spent. It has taken something few have experienced and made it gimmicky. What should be a unifying human goal can now be equated to opening a Costco by the highway with a big ribbon. Somehow, space travel just isn’t as exciting now. I want to see a real astronaut go to space, someone on the brink of cosmic discovery, not the former CEO of Amazon taking a joyride during his lunch break.
A true astronaut is not someone who has skipped steps or cut in line. Space travel is not something to be handed out like a prize on The Price Is Right. These flights have taken something we knew growing up as a beacon of progress towards a shared goal and made a mockery of it—because what’s the end goal? Even if space becomes an attainable destination, few of us will actually be able to go, and life in space is certainly not something on the table in our life time.
We should feel snubbed—or at least disappointed. Billions of dollars spent on glorified joy rides during a pandemic do not reflect the dedication and commitment to excellence that the astronaut signifies. Space is a sublime marvel of existence, not something to be bought. As with a head of state, we want to believe those people know what they are doing and will honour their position of power.
It is bizarre that we should hope for what seems like the impending commodification of our universe as the answer to increasing ecological projects on earth. This seems like solving a problem by expanding it. While we should hold up the ideal of space and innovation, should we not also feel good about doing it? Not to mention, we should probably look good, too.