Last week, the billionaire businessman Richard Branson hurled himself into space on a ship he helped privately fund and develop and came back smiling. Now Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is doing the same. Billionaires launching themselves skyward on their own dime has occasioned a bitter debate about income inequality—and whether the government should be taking more of their wealth through taxation.
"Here on Earth, in the richest country on the planet, half our people live paycheck to paycheck," complained Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.). "But hey, the richest guys in the world are off in outer space! Yes. It's time to tax the billionaires."
The anger directed at Bezos, Branson, and SpaceX's Elon Musk stands in striking contrast to the high approval long enjoyed by NASA, even though the space agency spent the better part of the last decade unable to get humans off-planet at all while still soaking up billions in taxpayer dollars.
"Should billionaires play out their space travel fantasies," tweeted Rep. Ro Khanna (D–Calif.), a member of the NASA caucus, "or should we invest in schooling, provide healthcare, and create prosperity for everyone?"
The irony is that NASA takes our money without our consent to finance a space program that no ordinary citizen could ever hope to access. Yet when Branson, Musk, and Bezos spend their own wealth with the explicit goal of one day selling ever-cheaper tickets to all comers, that's when congressmen get grumpy.
There's every reason to believe the democratization of space travel is upon us—Bezos, Branson, and Musk have already delivered on that promise in other sectors—unless the government manages to screw things up. Following the pattern of commercial air travel in the 20th century, a novelty for billionaires today may well be accessible to the ordinary rich and then the middle class soon enough.
The billionaires also say they're taking a long-term view: One day the capacity to get off-planet cheaply and at scale could be humanity's salvation. But what they want or envision isn't what really matters. Just as bubble wrap was invented to be wallpaper and Listerine was for cleaning floors, consumers will decide where the private space industry ultimately leads.
Bezos, Branson, Musk, and others have overtaken a wildly expensive, ineffective government program and built a competitive industry, driving down the cost of getting a kilogram into Low Earth Orbit by 44-fold already. Which billionaire goes to space first, how high he flies, how big his rocket is, or how much of his income went to taxes last year—none of that matters. What matters is what the rest of us are going to do with access to those same spacecraft and bigger, better, and weirder ones in the years to come.
Photo Credits: Wallyfly.com; NASA; Blue Origin; SpaceX; Stefani Reynolds/CNP/AdMedia/Newscom; Karl Mondon/TNS/Newscom; Blue Origin/MEGA / Newscom; Michael Brochstein/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Richard B. Levine/Newscom; ThaddeusCes, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Rocket Lab; Ken Cedeno/UPI/Newscom; Photo by Mishaal Zahed on Unsplash; Photo by David Maier on Unsplash; David mater Steve Jurvetson from Los Altos, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; NASA/Bill Ingalls, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; NASA/Kim Shiflett; Oliver Contreras/Sipa USA/Newscom; Photo by Pablo Guerrero on Unsplash; Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash; Photo by Elizabeth French on Unsplash; Photo by K Hsu on Unsplash; Photo by Briana Tozour on Unsplash; Photo by Ryan Kosmides on Unsplash; Photo by Sébastien Goldberg on Unsplash; Virgin Galactic/ZUMA Press Wire Service; Virgin Galactic/ZUMA Press Wire Service
Written by Katherine Mangu-Ward; produced by Regan Taylor; footage by Isaac Reese.