Space travel

There has been a considerable discussion during this past week whether Richard Branson is entitled to the title of “astronaut”. The spacecraft of Virgin Galactic, with the British billionaire and three other passengers, plus two pilots, on board, reached a height of a little over 80 kilometers. According to most international definitions, “space” begins at 100 kilometers, which would mean that Branson did not reach the so-called Kármán line that marks the imaginary boundary between air space and outer space. But in the US space organizations usually use 50 miles, or 80 kilometers, as the boundary of space, and according to American rules Branson and his colleagues may now call themselves “astronauts.”

Richard Branson, the British billionaire, has commercial interests in more than 400 different companies and Virgin Galactic is just one of these. It is his intention to develop a new market to serve those who have the desire (and the money) to make a trip into space. He claims that already more than six hundred people have signed up for such a trip at 250.000 dollar per ticket.

Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, is not far behind. Next week he is scheduled to launch a rocket from a base in Texas, that will take his Blue Origin space vehicle to a height of over 100 kilometers, thus leaving no doubt that he did indeed enter space—-if, like Branson, he makes it safely back to earth. After all, the risks remain very considerable. Bezos will be accompanied by three others, among whom is a 82-old woman. Elon Musk, the man behind the Tesla-phenomenon, is meanwhile developing his own space program and hopes to follow soon in the tracks of Branson and Bezos.

I am sure that many, like me, have mixed feelings about these new exploits of some of the richest people on our planet. Even though Bezos and Musk, who own 212 and 162 billion dollar, respectively, in their accounts, are much richer that Richard Branson (who, according to Forbes, is worth “only” about 6 billion dollar), these men belong to the league of the super-rich. It raises some serious questions: How can people in just a few decades amass such enormous wealth? Is this just a matter of shrewd business acumen, or is there something fundamentally wrong in our economy when so many people struggle with poverty, while a few can become so filthy rich?

Yesterday (as I was thinking about the topic for this week’s blog), my wife and I visited one of the largest and most magnificent (I think) castles in Denmark: the 17th-century Frederiksborg in Hilleröd, some 30 kilometers northwest of the Danish capital Copenhagen. I realize that when King Christian IV ordered this castle to be built, this required some serious wealth, while the vast majority of the Danes were living in abject poverty. And the same would be true for most of the castles and large mansion that are today’s favorite tourist attractions. The vast chasm between the poor and the very rich was not invented by Bezos and those who play in his league. But whatever can be said about this from a historical or economic perspective, we can definitely state from a Christian perspective that it is morally indefensible. And I would add to this: A rich Christian who is able and willing to buy a 250.000 dollar ticket for an adventure of just a few hours, must seriously consider whether he/she has his/her stewardship priorities straight.

Besides the question whether our world will become a better place if “a happy few” can indulge in one more extravagant activity, one wonder about the motivation of men like Branson, Bezos and Musk to compete in this race of creating the first space travel company. Is this simply some immature craving to be the first in everything, whatever it takes, and to show that you can beat your competition? I suppose competition and wanting to excel are, to some extent, part and parcel of all human endeavor. One might say that a degree of competition is “normal” and can even be helpful—if it is kept under control. Maybe we have reason to wonder whether these super-rich men, who are eager to be the first to pass the Kármán line, have their urge to compete under sufficient control.

Perhaps I will live long enough to see the ticket for an afternoon in outer space drop dramatically. I remember buying my first airline ticket to Scandinavia and paying about ten times as much as one would pay today. But even if the 250.000 ticket price comes down to a fraction of this amount, and lots of people can afford it, one must still wonder whether this is something the world really needs. Or is perhaps this latest development of the travel and leisure industry one more tragic sign that our world has priorities that are at odds with a Christian world view in which values are pursued to increase the happiness of all people rather than to pamper for the desires of the more well-to-do.