So if you’ve been watching the news over the past week, you’ll have no doubt spotted The Billionaire Space Race. Richard Bransom and Jeff Bezos have both built ‘consumer’ space flight businesses which will take a privileged few to space.
Virgin Galactic's official description labels it as “a new space age, where all are invited along for the ride”. That’s certainly not the case. A more realistic description would involve just how much it actually costs. Essentially, those with a few hundred hundred grand or more are invited along for the ride.
The Space Race: Then vs Now
It’s a weird venture, as the colossal sums of money invested could have been spent in far more productive ways. Global warming, world hunger, the rising gap in poverty. They all seem like much more pressing issues than allowing millionaires to go into space.
The faces behind the modern space race aren't the heroes of the 60s. Small-town boy scout Neil Armstrong was a face every child could look up to; the man on the moon was just a normal man. "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" is a phrase as the everyman role model that said it.
On the other hand, Bezos, Branson and Musk aren't heroes in any degree. All three treat their employees poorly, strip back consumer rights and regularly fighting back against any form of unionisation. Before society celebrates these ‘heroes’, maybe we should look at the steps they took to make that flight into the great unknown.
I’m not even sure where to begin with Bezos. Amazon’s treatment of workers in its fulfillment centres is long, well-documented and pretty atrocious. I won’t go into everything Amazon has ever done, but here are just a few of the highlights, if you can call them that:
- Amazon times staff toilet breaks, so many staff simply don’t go to the toilet
- It handled COVID precautions terribly, leading to a rise in cases in fulfillment centres
- Has crushed any semblance of a union on numerous occasions
- Allegedly caused one worker to have a miscarriage after denying her doctor’s orders to lighten her workload
These are just one of many, many stories regarding how Amazon treats its staff. When you look into it, there’s a clear reasoning behind it. Amazon, and Bezos, value money above anything else. This is shown by how few benefits staff receive compared to other major tech companies.
Amazon strips everything back to the basic essentials, saving money. There’s a reason Bezos is one of the richest men in the world, and part of it is owning Amazon. The other is cutting every corner possible. Corners that allegedly put staff in danger daily. It’s hard to be excited about this man going to space, when he has allegedly thrown so many people under the bus to do so.
Typically seen as one of the more likable millionaires, Branson doesn’t have quite the history that Bezos has, but he’s still no beacon of staff wellness, either. Only last year, Branson was asking the government for a bailout as Virgin Atlantic, his flight business, was at risk of going bankrupt. While Branson did sell shares of his space venture in order to transfer money to Atlantic, he’s worth an estimated £4.05 billion. Supporting staff through COVID out of his own pocket would not have made a dent.
A year later, he’s floating in space through a venture he funded. You should not be asking for bailout money if you can afford to fly to space. If you’re rich enough to own a literal island, reach into your pockets and support the staff who helped make you as rich as you are. Branson also has a well-documented history of tax evasion. He moved to the British Virgin Isles several years ago, as it meant he would pay little to no tax.
Similar to Bezos, it’s hard to be excited about Branson’s space venture when the money spent on it could have gone into far more important problems. Instead of continually pumping out emissions through Virgin Atlantic, Branson could instead move his tech focus to net-carbon flights. Focus on tech that creates a positive effect on the earth, rather than adding to the growing list of problems.
Much like Branson and Bezos, Musk is also planning to launch his first commercial spaceflight by the end of 2021. Costing literal millions for a ticket, Musk is the priciest of the three because of course he is. SpaceX is often in the news, due to the work the company is doing to advance spaceflight technology. In all fairness, SpaceX is doing some great stuff, but that’s because there are some genuinely really clever people there. There’s a public perception that Musk is incredibly smart, but truthfully, he just employs clever people.
However, Musk is another billionaire whose staff treatment is questionable. Musk has been publicly vocal about his anti-union feelings. He broke US labor laws on Twitter in 2019, when he tried to sabotage union efforts in a loaded Tweet. Musk was told to stop posting anti-union sentiments and Tesla had to hire back a fired employee. There’s lots of anecdotes around Musk’s treatment of staff, including reportedly working some individuals for 24 hours at a time and allegedly shouting at and degrading staff.
Before we hail Musk as some kind of hero for his efforts in the commercial space race, we need to look at the path he has taken to get there. This is a guy who admittedly looks at the larger picture in terms of our race and surviving. However, his treatment of staff actively holds society back as his anti-union mentality stops staff from collectively having a say in their own safety.
The Space Disg-race
This new space race is honestly difficult to be excited about when you consider the people behind it. As a metaphor, all three billionaires are wasting inordinate amounts of money to prove who has the biggest pee pee. That’s all it really comes down to. Commercial space flights allow incredibly rich people to go to space, but for most people on the other side of the wealth divide, it is ultimately pointless. Even when it ends up cheaper and better optimised, it is still going to be too expensive for the majority.
There’s the argument that this entire race is pushing technology forward, but I’d argue differently. We already know how to travel to space, we’ve been doing it for decades. Making space travel accessible to millionaires is wasting resources that could be spent on technology needed here on earth. Earth is warming up, oceans are rising, the wealth divide is growing and extreme weather is becoming more prominent around the world. It was only a few weeks ago that scientists predicted the world is on track for a societal and industrial collapse. Makes commercial spaceflight seem kinda redundant, right?
People need to stop holding Bezos, Branson and Musk up like they are heroes. These are men who have got into the positions they are in by taking shortcuts, not paying taxes and, ultimately, not treating those below them very well. If this is progress, what is the cost?
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