Vinay Menon: The billionaire space race between Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos is one small step for greed, one giant leap for ego

Is there anything Earth needs less right now than space tourism?

Before we debate this, let’s start with the news. As I type this on Friday, Virgin Galactic’s countdown clock is active and ticking down from “1 Day, 21 Hours, 2 Minutes, 42 Seconds …”

On Sunday morning, if all goes according to plan, company founder Sir Richard Branson will blast off to the edge of space. The round trip, from New Mexico to the stars and back, will last about 90 minutes, or roughly what it takes to drive from Toronto to Niagara Falls.

This is less a historic mission and more of a cosmic joyride.

The media on Earth is framing Sunday’s launch as the opening salvo in a Billionaire Space Race. Jeff Bezos, the richest Earthling, will cosplay an astronaut when he boards his Blue Origin spacecraft on July 20. Elon Musk has said he’d like to die on Mars, “just not on impact.”

So we’ll have to wait and see if he ever sparks up a doobie on the Red Planet. I also have no clue if or when Mark Zuckerberg will return to his home planet, or if Bill Gates is now hatching a scheme with aliens to buy up all the arable farmland beyond Andromeda.

But what’s even less clear is why Earth needs space tourism at all in 2021.

Has this pandemic taught us nothing about our fragility? Life as we know it was turned upside down for more than a year thanks to a microbe we can’t see with our eyes. It’s still far from over. Meanwhile, the climate on this planet is in a state of rebellion. Historic heatwaves. Droughts. Tropical storms on steroids. Urban flooding. Raging conflagrations around the globe Branson might even be able to spot from the VSS Unity on Sunday.

There was just a “fire tornado” in California. How long until “Sharknado” is real?

If Sunday’s flight was a one-off, I wouldn’t be running my yap now, especially about Mr. Branson. From daredevil motorboating to unwise kiteboarding to crossing the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon — and nearly dying — he has an adventurous spirit most of us will never understand. He keeps playing chicken with the Grim Reaper, exploits that have earned him multiple Guinness World Records. He’s a madman, as I told him a few years back.

He just laughed and told me about a recurring childhood dream: he could fly.

You see, on those rare occasions when his overactive imagination achieved a deep sleep, young Richard found himself in something of Dali dreamscape, flapping his arms and taking flight as the clocks melted and gravity was conquered like a hostile takeover. To this day, his favourite character is Peter Pan. The feeling of weightlessness was a powerful narcotic.

I hope Sunday’s flight lives up to those childhood dreams. Really.

Then I hope Branson safely returns to Earth and gives his head a shake.

Can you imagine how much good would come if all the aspiring space cowboys and cowgirls with deep pockets redirected the cash set aside for cosmic joyrides back into this planet?

According to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, Virgin Galactic already more than 600 reservations with more than $ 80 million in deposits. The company has also identified a potential customer base of two million people who had a net worth in excess of $ 10 million in 2019. Some analysts believe “space tourism” will generate more than $ 4 billion in revenue by 2030. That is a big chunk of change that does absolutely nothing for this planet.

Unlike with NASA, or other government agencies around the world, space exploration by private enterprise is not about human endeavour or expanding our understanding of the universe. This is all about thrill seeking and bragging rights for the chattering class. It’s about the promise of a tantalizing new bottom line. Catapulting the mega-rich beyond our atmosphere for an ephemeral look-see is one small step for greed, one giant leap for ego.

I honestly don’t get it. We are poised to kick-start a new industry that will soon charge customers upwards of $ 500,000 for what amounts to a 90-minute ride from launch pads on a planet that itself is becoming more and more uninhabitable? It’s like dropping more than $ 5 grand per minute to get spun around on a merry-go-round as the playground burns down.

It would be one thing if the long-range plan was to colonize new planets or even seek out new extractable resources. If there is water on Mars, maybe we can steal it to help the one in four humans who, you know, do not have access to clean drinking water? Is there affordable housing on Venus? Good jobs on Neptune? Equality on Saturn? Are there any past extinction events to learn from on Mercury? Any detectable hubris on the surface of Jupiter?

If so, cue the retraction and where are my Virgin Galactic pom-poms?

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But as it stands now, in 2021, this Billionaire Space Race is an insult to anyone trying to make this planet a better place. It’s a total waste of time, money and human ingenuity.

Godspeed on Sunday, Sir Richard Branson. Really.

But when you’re up there in microgravity, not even above the Kármán line, stare into the blackness and keep one thing in mind: Earth needs you more than ever.

TORONTO STAR