It's the most 2021 of all 2021 storylines: after gorging themselves on the best of a plague-torn planet, the billionaires are going to space. Corporate giants Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have all drawn on public coffers — as well as their own enormous fortunes — to breach the bounds of earth. What they seek to leave behind is a planet burning and flooding and full of the kind of small and ordinary suffering such fortunes could alleviate in an instant.
In 1970, one year after the moon landing, the poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron released one of his best-known spoken word compositions. The piece, “Whitey on the Moon,” memorialized, in sardonic fashion, the saccharine patriotism that had arisen around Apollo 11, with its Cold War triumphalism and sensation of the imminent conquest of space.
Scott-Heron’s oration, against the backdrop of a hypnotic drumbeat, lamented that a rat had bitten his sister, the rent was going up, and far away on a rock in airless space a man had planted an American flag. Scott-Heron later explained that the poem had been inspired by Eldridge Cleaver, an exiled leader of the Black Panther Party, describing the space race as a “flying circus” meant to suppress both revolutionary sentiment and more conventional efforts at social betterment in the United States.
Fifty-one years later, Scott-Heron’s words are no less damning — doctor bills and rent remain unalleviated, and the racial disparities inherent in the refrain seem ever starker, enshrined in new voter-suppression legislation around the country and in the disproportionate death toll of the pandemic on communities of color. But a new “flying circus” has arisen nonetheless — another race to space, even more ludicrous than before, with a rarefied circle of lily-white billionaires serving as well-heeled ringmasters.
The exploration of space, as Scott-Heron noted most succinctly but which a long history of social commentary lays out, has always been juxtaposed against the pressing earthly needs of any country that seeks to launch its citizens into orbit. The United States, ever a poor steward of its citizens’ needs — from the abject failure of its health care system to appalling rates of poverty and food insecurity unparalleled in developed nations — is particularly vulnerable to this criticism.
“America has reached the stars but has not reached out to her starving poor,” the civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy said at a 1969 protest at Cape Kennedy. NASA itself also reflected the myriad prejudices of the period, its elite mission an excuse to keep its public face white and male. It took until 1983 for Guion Bluford to become the first African American in space. That same year Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, 20 years after Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova took a solo spaceflight on the Vostok 6.
Nonetheless, there was, arguably, something noble about the space program of the 1960s: It may have been mired in the bitter and petty rivalries of the Cold War, and limned by prejudice about who could excel, but it was a project funded and created by our government, an achievement held in common by the masses.
No such common pride can be held in the launch of the titans of capital. These space newbies are proud of the massive outlays of cash their sallies require — the ultimate in cachet, and in embodied folly. More distressing is how much public money is going to these boondoggles. Musk’s empire, including SpaceX, his sally into rocketry, is funded to the tune of $4.9 billion in government subsidies. Virgin Galactic has received contracts from NASA as well as $200 million in investment in a spaceport from the state of New Mexico. And Bezos’ Blue Origin has applied for a $10 billion federal contract, which cleared the Senate, though it was blocked in the House in June.
The results of those federal investments aren’t for the good of all mankind — they’re for the good of a select group of men. Bezos, who plans to jet to the edge of space on Tuesday, even invited an as-yet-unidentified multimillionaire to buy his way aboard. Said multimillionaire is unable to even take the $28 million seat because of a scheduling issue (perhaps he had some gold-flecked caviar to eat off the palm of a stately courtesan); a Dutch teenager will take his place instead.
Meanwhile, Branson, the blond-goateed proprietor of Virgin Galactic, flew to just below the Kármán line, the outer boundary of earth’s atmosphere, last week; future flights will cost ticket-holders a quarter-million dollars. And while he won’t be launched into the sky himself, let’s not leave out the odious Musk, whose signature combination of braggadocio and searingly obnoxious fanbase makes the SpaceX-founder perhaps the most unlikable of any of these would-be emperors of the cosmos.
In this billionaire battle, there is no pretense at a sense of collective pride or communal achievement. Even the drumbeat of nationalism would be better than this obscene egotism, whose fumes are more putrid than rocket-jet emissions. It feels like a parody of hubris, and a colossal celebration of the social failure to moderate preposterous accumulations of wealth.
There may be those who thrill at the spectacle, but the whole ordeal is too apt a metaphor for the slow and then dizzyingly fast collapse of America. What once was a public effort turned into a private playground for the ultra-wealthy, the commons hollowed out and impoverished to make room for immense consolidated wealth. While the rich sail to the stars the rest of us are left to toil in gravity’s bounds, never to attain the exalted heights, or elevated strata, that the titans of greed have claimed for themselves.
These men — all men, all white, all rich beyond imagining, hoarding wealth beyond the coffers of most global governments — are bored of their multiple homes and enormous staffs and entourages and yes-men and diminishing corporate responsibilities. They look to the black deeps of space to fuel their sense of conquest, correctly assuming that all earthly authority is too cowed to challenge them, that they will never have to share the treasure troves they have acquired and sit on in dragonish greed. But even the sucking emptiness of space cannot match their vacuity; stars shine with inner fire, not glitz dearly bought and easily discarded.
Looking at Bezos’ pending launch into space, I cannot help but think of the fact that the behemoth company he founded is infamous for forcing their warehouse workers to urinate in bottles. (At least astronauts have the advantage of an elaborate hose-and-funnel system — and more importantly, it’s part of a path they have chosen, not an exercise in dehumanization.) In space, at least, unlike in the United States, there’s no real estate crunch — there is quite literally all the room in the world, for the most colossal of palaces.
If the billionaires really wish to outdo each other, let them build floating space palaces of increasingly comical size; rest in weightless ease on their golden artificial planets; and leave the rest of us in peace, never to return.
CORRECTION (July 20, 2021, 9:40 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the name of Gil Scott-Heron's 1970 spoken word piece. It is titled "Whitey on the Moon," not "White on the Moon."