Space Tourism: Can the technology revolutionise aviation or will it remain the rich boys' pastime?

There could be a positive spin off but at this point it is difficult to see. For all practical purposes talk of space tourism leave the common man cold. Could the money have been used better?

Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos
Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos

Abhijit Shanker

Three billionaires were in the news for their attempts into foraying in space. All three of them succeeded – to varying degrees of cheers from their constituents.

This new competition among the world’s richest, has sprouted a new frontier, ‘space tourism’. Will Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos be able to successfully lead us into a future where space travel would be possible for average Joes like us?

Some argue the billions being spent in space tourism, could be better utilized in alleviating poverty in the world and to provide food to the 818 million who go hungry every day. In a recent speech at the COP26, a World Food Program (WFP) staffer asked Elon Musk to pay his requisite taxes, $6 billion a year, which often is the annual budget of humanitarian aid organisations such as WFP and UNICEF.

Musk responded by asking WFP to create a plan to rid the world of hunger, his condition being that the plan should be public. The banter did not go anywhere. However, it did well to remind the rest of us about the tax responsibilities of billionaires such as Musk, Branson, and Bezos.

Musk’s SpaceX organization promises to raise money for St Jude’s Hospital, catering to children suffering from cancer. The first of such fund raisers is planned to be through Inspiration4, the first all civilian mission to orbit.

Anand Giridharadas, in his 2018 book ‘Winners take all–The Elite charade of changing the world’ argues that the world would not need charities (or foundations) of the rich, if they simply paid their taxes like the rest of us. He named Clinton Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative among those whose services may not be needed if the government of the day tightened the tax noose on the owners.

Working with the respective governments, the three organizations -- Space X, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin – will likely charge rich people lots of money to provide them (literally) an ‘out of the world’ experience, providing them a view of the Earth which only the likes of NASA astronauts and the very rich have had. Will the view and the experience be worth the money, likely in millions of US dollars?

It does seem like a billionaire’s fetish, who probably does not know what to do with the money he has already made. But can their intervention assist ongoing research being conducted by governments of the day?

Such explorations in any case adds millions to the brand values of their respective companies. A subsidiary of his main business, Bezos’ Prime Video telecast a live transmission of his flight, to the periphery of the universe and back, adding another dimension to his business and to his personal brand.

Considering the number of millionaires in the world today, this space tourism is likely going to be open to only a few. There are 56 million ‘millionaires’ in the world today, constituting 1.1% of the world’s population. It does look then like a game for the rich.

There are some positives though, that might come out of this billionaires’ race. Technology, travel, and exploration are some of those. Airline travel seemed impossible a hundred years ago, but all of us are presented with multiple choices today. The space race may similarly open up new vistas and opportunities.

This may also help bring back some focus on the importance of science and of fact-based explorations, away from the empty regressive rhetoric which promise to make our respective countries great again. But for now, it may be more prudent to focus on the problems this world has, and not go looking for another which may or may not exist.

(The author is a former Chief of Communications with the UN in New York, where he worked for more than a decade. Views are personal)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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