Can we please try to get a little less gung-ho in our adulation for rich guys in space?


Joy ride?: Branson (centre) and other Unity 22 crew members at zero gravity as they flew into space aboard a Virgin Galactic vessel last week. — AFP

I WAS already tired of the gee-whiz coverage of Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos going into space before Branson actually went there last Sunday (or, went somewhere close, depending on your definition of space).

But much of the coverage since has absolutely worn me out with its treatment of Branson as a heroic figure and his joy ride some 50 miles (85km) above earth as if it was a monumental moment in human exploration and consciousness.

“Really, it’s a moment that gives you goose bumps,” Rachel Crane, CNN innovation correspondent said Sunday morning on the channel shortly after Branson’s craft landed. “As a reporter, we all have those moments that we put in the memory book forever, that we know we’re never going to forget, we’re going to hold onto the rest of our lives. I have got to tell you, this is one of those for me.”

Obviously, Crane is free to enshrine whatever memories she wants in her memory book, but I don’t think I will be slotting Branson’s marketing moment last Sunday alongside, say, the US landing on the moon in 1969, in mine.

Others had problems with some of CNN’s coverage as well.

“Covering Richard Branson’s flight, CNN’s Rachel Crane just reported that historically these big technological innovations happen because of rich people. Hmm. Nasa, the Internet, mapping the human genome?” Steven Waldman, co-founder and president of Report for America, wrote on Twitter.

Bezos at New Shepard’s West Texas launch facility before the rocket’s maiden voyage in 2015. He is set to venture into space this Tuesday. — AFPBezos at New Shepard’s West Texas launch facility before the rocket’s maiden voyage in 2015. He is set to venture into space this Tuesday. — AFP

Alex Heard, editorial director of Outside magazine, tweeted that “almost everything” Crane said in her reports “sounds like Virgin Galactic wrote it for her.”

Virgin Galactic is the spaceflight company founded by Branson. It plans to provide suborbital flights like the one Branson took to those customers with the means to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to ride on this rich guy’s Space Mountain.

“We are at the vanguard of a new industry determined to pioneer twenty-first century spacecraft, which will open space to everybody – and change the world for good,” is the way a mission statement from Branson atop Virgin Galactic’s homepage puts it.

God save us from rich guys like Branson and Mark Zuckerberg promising their latest moneymaking technological venture is going to change the world for good. And we are in for more talk of how these efforts to privatise and colonise space are a good thing for all of us when Bezos takes a crew into suborbital space on Tuesday, July 20. While Branson’s flight went some 50 miles above the earth’s surface, which is considered space by several agencies in the US, Bezos plans to travel at least 62 miles (99.8km) above the surface, which is the true definition of space, according to several international bodies like Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. I am not sure I care about the distinction or the hyped rivalry between these two rich boys with their toys.

I am with Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, on this one: “Here on Earth, in the richest country on the planet, half our people live paycheck to paycheck, people are struggling to feed themselves, struggling to see a doctor – but hey, the richest guys in the world are off in outer space!” he wrote on Twitter. “Yes. It’s time to tax the billionaires.”

Too much of the coverage of Branson and Bezos so far has promoted the idea that the rich will save us. From the characterisation of Branson as some kind of heroic figure to the notion that rich men have led the way in technology that makes life better for all of us, that idea permeated cable TV coverage of the Virgin Galactic flight, especially on CNN.

We have seen it in other areas of American life where we face monumental challenges. During the 2016 presidential election with Donald Trump portrayed as a great and rich CEO based on a manufactured reality TV persona. In the 2020 presidential election, with Michael Bloomberg moving up in the polls based on huge ad buys until his candidacy crashed and burned in a TV debate. It is still being seen by some as a solution to the plight of local and regional newspapers.

The solutions to our problems are not going to be found in suborbital space or in blindly celebrating the rich. They will more likely be found in working together instead of warring with one another here on earth. — The Baltimore Sun/TNS

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