They are rich boys with some very expensive toys. As Richard Branson completes his first space flight, it would be easy to dismiss the race between the Virgin founder and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to be the first billionaire in space as the self-indulgence of a couple of tycoons with too much testosterone and too much money.
The competition will be seen by some on the liberal left as a symbol of widening inequalities. They will view it as the emergence of a plutocratic class separated from the rest of us, and as proof of the argument that space should be left to the public sphere. Of course there is an element of truth in all of those complaints. Yet the race between some of the world’s richest men to get into orbit is also a demonstration of what free market capitalism does best.
While the rest of us were absorbed, disappointingly as it turned out, in the final of the Euros, Richard Branson finally completed his goal of going into space. It is a long way from selling second-hand records by mail order.
Over the next few weeks, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, will go even further, with a more ambitious flight.
Elon Musk, the Tesla founder, hasn’t started riding in his own rockets yet, but it may only be a matter of time. The world’s billionaires have moved on from yachts, football clubs, and supermodels, and committed themselves to space exploration instead.
It would be easy to sneer at that. But there are three big reasons why it should be welcomed. First, it sets up a competition. The last great achievements in space came in the 1960s, when the race to get into orbit – and then to land the first man on the moon – was a proxy for the Cold War, with the Soviet Union and the United States, competing to get there first. Nothing ever happens without some form of contest to spur it forward, and the competition between the world’s billionaires provides that.
Next, they have the money, and more importantly the commercial awareness. European explorers only opened up the New World because there was money in it. To explore space properly, it will have to be commercially viable, as well as intellectually interesting. We will need business models as well as scientific ones.
Finally, exploring space will require ambition, vision, endurance and innovation, especially when it comes to establishing colonies on Mars (one of Elon Musk’s pet projects). The qualities that make for a great entrepreneur are the same that make for a great explorer.
In truth, there was a reason why Captain Kirk’s ship in Star Trek was called the USS Enterprise. As the script-writers of that classic series rightly recognised, traveling to the planets and stars would be a celebration of rugged individualism. It remains to be seen whether humankind can really expand into space, or whether we will forever be tethered to our own planet. But if we do we will need big egos, and great entrepreneurs to get us there.
The race between Branson and Bezos may be childish on one level. But on another, it is reminder of what capitalism is best at.
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