In July of 2021, two members of the global super elite each took to their space plane and strangely phallic rocket, racing to the edge of our atmosphere in a PR stunt to launch a new era of tourism. After conjuring these multimillion-dollar toys from the depths of their pockets, all the billionaire CEOs needed to do was make sure they could convince their peers in the top 0.5% give them more money once they’d finished playing. And so, the endeavour would be branded as a ‘billionaire space race’, grabbing the headlines and getting the money pouring in. Considering the nature of this article, it clearly worked as a PR stunt, so does it even matter who got there first?
Perhaps we’d have a greater insight if there were a clearer winner. Although Sir Richard Branson flew first into ‘space’ with his Virgin Galactic spaceplane, rival company Blue Origin were quick to point out in a tweet that they never crossed the Karman Line, ‘the internationally recognised boundary of space’ located 100km from sea level. While it is true that reaching an altitude of 100km would be universally recognised as reaching space, many countries would recognise it at 80km, a margin exceeded by the Virgin Galactic flight. The required altitude for becoming an astronaut is notably at 100km, an important metric for Blue Origin, who actively invites customers to ‘become an astronaut’. This has been dismissed by the FAA, however, who award astronaut’s wings to those who carry out a public service in space, which they have decided isn’t fulfilled by tourists. Should we instead be anticipating the first company to offer ‘voluntourism’ in space so people can earn their astronaut wings?
Considering we live on a warming planet; we might want to incorporate a points-based penalty system in the billionaire space race to reward cleaner contenders. Rockets do not contribute anything healthy to our atmosphere. The negative effects from massive emissions from each launch are exacerbated by the fact that these emissions are injected right into the upper atmosphere. At the small scales seen currently with relatively limited access to space, rocket emissions make up only a fraction of global CO2 output. If, however, we are going to increase that access to allow civilian tourism, with Virgin Galactic alone hoping to offer 400 flights annually, this could quickly become more of an issue. Blue Origin’s rocket uses hydrogen as a fuel, with the only emission being water, which although still has warming effects at high altitude is much less damaging than the refining and use of the fuels used by Virgin Galactic.
So, does it matter which billionaire is first into space?
For me, no. For the history books it will do, but because it was a two-horse race the loser will always be remembered as well, so I doubt it will affect the future endeavours of the companies. For me, it matters most which billionaire is being most responsible with their extravagant pastimes. They can throw about money as much as they want, but the smaller the negative impact of their exploits on the prospects of the planet, the better. It says a lot about society when you can simultaneously witness a plague of natural disasters around the world from climate change and the launch of the global elite’s expensive polluting toys.
Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.