On Tuesday, Jeff Bezos took a quick ride into space and got a spectacular view of the planet upon which he is the richest man. When the Amazon founder got back to Earth after a flawless demonstration of the capabilities of the Blue Origin New Shepard rocket that he paid to develop and build, he was greeted with criticism from those who insist his vast wealth would be better spent on fixing terrestrial problems.
Even though Bezos made a post-flight announcement about several big philanthropic programs he is planning to fund, those who are affronted by the sight of billionaires in space were likely unmollified. The rise of space tourism – the filthy rich paying exorbitant fees to take a thrill ride up where gravity disappears – is politically, philosophically and esthetically abhorrent to such critics.
It is useful to remember, however, that when commercial airline travel first emerged, it was a luxury available primarily to the affluent. Not that many decades later, flying is accessible to the vast majority of Americans. This new phase in space travel is a similar, predictable, transitory step toward the day when many of us will be heading to the moon for a holiday or traveling to Mars to check out the real estate.
Yes, Bezos and his competitors in the privatized race into space – Richard Branson and Elon Musk – are ridiculously wealthy and can sometimes seem like spoiled rich boys playing with cool new toys. Nevertheless, they are doing something important that could, ultimately, alter human civilization. Space exploration may prove to be a path into the cosmos that saves humankind or it may prove to be a dead end, a task beyond the reach of any human technology. We need to find out which is true. Bezos and the other space billionaires might deserve criticism for many things, but they also deserve cheers for ambitiously blazing a trail that our descendants may follow to the stars.
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