'Space Race' between billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson is a grotesque display of wealth – Laura Waddell

It’s easy to romanticise the original Space Race.

The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Unity flies high above New Mexico on its way to the edge of space (Picture: Patrick T Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)
The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Unity flies high above New Mexico on its way to the edge of space (Picture: Patrick T Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

So many moments captured the public’s imagination, memorialised since (at least, for those of us not around at the time) in endless pop culture tributes, a lot of which tend to go heavy on the sense of wonder.

If one image could sum up the general tone of how TV and film depicts this era of astral activity, it would probably be that of a neat family unit, sitting in front of their TV, marvelling at pictures of rockets launching and men on the moon. Cap off the scene with a close up of Little Johnny’s awe-struck face, planets reflected in his eyes.

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Elsewhere, bar patrons cheer, printing presses go like the clappers to get out historic front covers.

But for all there is to enjoy about that (imagine watching someone walk on the moon for the first time! Literally, an out-of-this-world sight!) the politics around it were really quite grim.

The Space Race emerged from the rush to build ever more devastating weapons, two nations goading one another with the most aggressive phallic symbols they could construct with which to hold a threat over the other’s civilians.

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The remarkable scientific advancements of the time were made in the context of two world powers sparring over whose rocket was bigger and could blast off more powerfully, empire-building among the stars. An interesting time.

The crew of Blue Origin’s New Shepard, from left Oliver Daemen, Jeff Bezos, Wally Funk, and Mark Bezos, pose for a picture after flying into space from Van Horn, Texas (Picture: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In comparison, the billionaire space race of the 21st century is incredibly dull. Who cares about Richard Branson, Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, some of the world’s richest men, duking it out to propel themselves off this Earth in ever wilder, more attention-grabbing ways?

I would say let all commercial visitors to space stay out there, but we shouldn’t add to the existing problem of space pollution. Trash in space is the most depressing evidence for how poorly humans treat every environment we have access to.

Gushing news stories about the latest big-money private space mission have nothing to do with scientific exploration and everything to do with money. Great, grotesque globs of it in unthinkable quantities.

Workers in Earth’s factories might be scared to take toilet breaks for fear of rebuke, but hey, the billionaires are going galactic. Not only is this world already a plaything for the astronomically wealthy, but now so is the great beyond.

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There are no limits: to how far they can go, to how hard they can play, or to how much money an individual wealthy man might amass.

That’s why this particular display so turns my stomach. Never before have we been so privy to the eccentricities of cash-flashing billionaires and those who emulate their lifestyles on social media. That’s quaint in comparison.

But space, that huge, beautiful, frightening, still largely unknown place! How grotesque to see billionaires safari through it.

Shouldn’t pushing the limits of space exploration be more democratic, more scientific, more beautiful and more purposeful than rich men gallumphing through the galaxy, those left behind on Earth toiling away to make them richer?

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