The optics, as the consultants say these days, were awkward.
The richest man in the world rocketed into the upper atmosphere of Earth in a phallic-shaped spaceship on the anniversary of the day that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first walked on the moon in 1969.
To put a fine point on it, Armstrong and Aldrin were civil servants, albeit elite ones as American astronauts. Armstrong, the Apollo 11 mission commander, made around $221,890 a year in 2021 dollars. Aldrin’s salary was $137,491, also adjusted for inflation. Famously shy (and spectacularly competent) Armstrong especially never sought to profit from his notoriety.
Bezos, by contrast, is worth about $204 billion.
Armstrong and Aldrin were the first humans to land on another world, capping the space race with the Soviet Union. It was a great adventure, a national undertaking.
Bezos’ craft, built by his Kent-based Blue Origin, traveled 66 miles above the planet’s surface in a voyage that lasted 10 minutes in the company’s inaugural human flight. NASA’s mighty Saturn V rocket lifted the Apollo craft nearly twice that far just to enter orbit. Apollo then began a 953,054-mile journey, including orbits, to the moon and back in nine days, the culmination of a decade-long program.
Armstrong famously proclaimed, “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” On the lunar surface, he and Aldrin placed commemorative plaques for the three Apollo 1 astronauts who died in a launchpad fire and two Soviet cosmonauts who died in accidents. Miniaturized goodwill messages from 73 countries were left, too, on a small silicon disk.
Bezos hopes to ignite a boom in “space” tourism — even though 66 miles is barely space, but to be fair, he wants to reach orbit and beyond in future flights. Want a seat? Pricing isn’t disclosed but is estimated at between $300,000 and $500,000. Blue Origin has sold nearly $100 million in tickets to wannabe tourists, according to Bezos.
All this at a time when so many here on Earth are struggling to get by.
I don’t need always-tetchy social media to feel a twinge of outrage.
“Space travel isn’t a tax-free holiday for the wealthy,” U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Democrat of Oregon, said afterward. “We pay taxes on plane tickets. Billionaires flying into space — producing no scientific value — should do the same, and then some!”
To be sure, many of the most famous business titans were worthy of people’s antipathy. Financier John Pierpont Morgan said, “I owe the public nothing.” Henry Ford was a notorious anti-Semite. Steve Jobs was a cruel father to his daughter Lisa. The divorce of Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates is revealing the dark side of Microsoft’s co-founder. Bezos could be worse.
I also tire of the Seattle left’s hating on Amazon, a company that grew here organically to become the city’s largest private-sector employer and huge taxpayer. This was a gift to Seattle, while more than 240 localities were willing to give big incentives to win HQ2.
In a better world, companies from Amazon to Walmart and the big banks would be broken up. The workforces would be unionized. Amazon never would have gotten its years of tax advantages over brick-and-mortar stores. But in the world as it is, I’m happy that Amazon’s headquarters is here.
Then we face the cognitive dissonance between social-media anger and consumer behavior. Amazon is America’s second most-admired company, according to Fortune magazine’s latest rankings (Apple is No. 1). The reader should know that while I support independent bookstores, Amazon sells my books, too.
I wonder how many of Bezos’ critics on Twitter Tuesday bought something from Amazon this week.
As for Blue Origin, its New Shepard rocket (named after astronaut Alan Shepard, who became the first American to travel into space in 1961) carried a booster that landed after releasing its payload. That reusable stage is an advance over NASA’s early rockets. Bezos hopes future launch systems can go to the moon and farther.
“We’re going to build a road to space so that our children and their children can build the future,” he said. “This is going to take decades.”
He has competition.
Earlier this month billionaire Richard Branson was part of a crew that flew a Virgin Galactic ship 53 miles into the atmosphere. The company hopes to take paying customers next year.
And both Bezos and Branson are behind Elon Musk, close to Bezos in the wealth race, whose SpaceX is ferrying astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station. SpaceX also uses a recoverable first stage.
Bezos also faces questions. Blue Origin was founded in 2000 to help accomplish his vision for spacefaring humanity. He invested about $10 billion of his own money in the company.
In Ars Technica, Eric Berger wrote, “So after he returned from his spaceflight on Tuesday, what I most wanted to know is whether Jeff Bezos is all-in on space. He has the vision. He has the money. But at the age of 57, does he have enough years or willingness to ensure Blue Origin’s success? Or will he leave Blue Origin to flounder and instead mostly retire to his half-billion-dollar yacht after a suborbital joy ride?
“The jury is very much out.”
And little of this is inspiring. It’s mostly about the Benjamins.
Aldrin, the last surviving member of the Apollo 11 crew, maintains a lively Twitter presence (@TheRealBuzz). This week he tweeted, “Where were you 52 years ago today? #Apollo11 Magnificent Landing” along with the NASA photo of the crew — including command module pilot Michael Collins who orbited the moon — and the official plaque.
On July 11th, he tweeted, “Happy launching today Richard. May you have clear skies and smooth sailing! (Nice shirt Elon!).” It was reacting to a photo of Branson and Musk.
But no tweet for Bezos.
NASA has bold aspirations to resume manned spaceflight. This includes Boeing and other contractors — like Project Apollo days — working on reusable spacecraft and heavy-lift rockets for missions to be moon and beyond. Unlike Project Apollo, NASA is long starved for funding.
The nation that landed humans on the moon was dependent on Russia for years to reach the orbiting international station after the space shuttles were retired. Now we’re dependent on billionaires for the most tangible and immediate results.
China still sees space exploration as a national project and it has big plans to build its own space station and send people to the moon.
It’s not how those of us old enough to remember Neil Armstrong stepping onto the Sea of Tranquility thought history would play out.