We once marvelled at Neil Armstrong. Now space is a playground for the rich | John Harris

Nasa’s greatest feats were a triumph for mankind. History will be less kind to today’s space pioneers

The promised journey is from Earth to the edge of space, rather than London Euston to Crewe, but the story of Richard Branson’s company Virgin Galactic still has echoes of a bad passenger experience on his trains. For the best part of a decade, his potential customers have been waiting for an experience that was meant to arrive in 2011, with only one certainty to hang on to: the tickets are eye-wateringly expensive. The price for Virgin rocket travel now apparently hovers at around £250,000, and reports suggest that among those patiently waiting to climb aboard are Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga.

Now, though, there may finally be a breakthrough. Even if he said something very similar in 2017, Branson claims that the rocket-powered craft known as VSS Unity is “weeks, not months” away from reaching the all-important altitude of 80.4km (264,000ft) above Earth – which means that the first paying passengers should be experiencing weightlessness and marvelling at the curvature of the Earth “not too long after”. As and when that happens, the feat will be framed in terms of a win for him over the two other tycoons who are spending an inordinate amount of money on private space flight: the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, with Blue Origin, and that increasingly accident-prone visionary Elon Musk, the brains behind the electric car firm Tesla, and Space Exploration Technologies Corp, better known as SpaceX.

I am a child of the 1970s, when the first space age was slowly drawing to a close. In those days, fired by the deep rivalries of the cold war, space exploration and travel were collectivist endeavours, and the monopoly of the two super-powerful governments that had unique access to the necessary funds (in the case of the Apollo programme, which put people on the moon, well over $100bn [£76bn] in today’s prices). As is portrayed in the new Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, American astronauts were apparently modest and unrufflable men, chosen for precisely those qualities. At the space race’s peak, the teams that oversaw their amazing journeys dissolved into a sea of respectable haircuts and short-sleeved shirts, so anonymous that the names of some of the key people in charge – the Nasa administrator James E Webb, or the agency’s deputy associate administrator, George E Mueller – have been all but lost to history. In retrospect, this represented the ultimate triumph of the postwar bureaucratic state, before the early 1980s began the era in which it was endlessly dismantled.

a mannequin in one of Elon Musk’s cars orbiting the Earth.
The ‘stupefyingly pointless’ spectacle of a mannequin in one of Elon Musk’s cars orbiting the Earth. Photograph: SPACEX/EPA

While the idea of state-led space travel may yet be decisively revived by China, the new space race in the west is something almost surreally different: a competition between rich, often knowingly “flamboyant” entrepreneurs, whose motivations are open to speculation. For sure, some of their innovations are genuinely useful: witness SpaceX’s reusable rockets. But too often, there is a telling gap between these people’s professed ambitions, and the anticlimactic stunts that currently earn them the biggest headlines – something perfectly symbolised by Musk’s talk of colonies on Mars, and that stupefyingly pointless spectacle of a mannequin in one of his sports cars, launched into space back in February, and then stranded in orbit. Such spectacles, perhaps, are a distraction from rising questions about how exactly private space flight should be regulated, both because of its dangers (in 2014, a pilot was killed while testing one of Virgin Galactic’s space-planes), and the rising sense that some elements of the new space race are built on a very earthly kind of greed. The latter is evidenced by the companies that have plans for asteroid mining, prospecting on the moon – and, by way of a punchline provided by a Japanese firm called ispace Inc, projecting adverts on to the lunar surface.

Tellingly, the roots of a lot of what is happening lie in the thinking of small-state libertarians who hoovered up the work of the US author Ayn Rand, and saw Nasa’s retreat from space exploration as decisive proof of the uselessness of government. A good example is Peter Diamandis, who has worked with Branson on space flight and founded the X Prize Foundation. His first big act was the awarding of $10m to the people who in 2004 took a privately built craft called SpaceShipOne just beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. In 1994, he drafted a charter for early work on private space flight. “Throughout all of history,” he wrote, “the greatest accomplishments of the human race have been instigated and acted upon by the individual or the small group – never have the masses brought about innovation.”

In this vision, it seemed, space travel was to be the preserve of a self-conscious elite largely untroubled by governments and less interested in exploring new frontiers on our behalf than in leaving the rest of us behind. And so, perhaps, it is proving. Blue Origin will reportedly soon be offering brief trips to the edge of space for up to $300,000 a throw. As soon as 2023, SpaceX will transport the Japanese retail tycoon Yusaku Maezawa around the moon, a privilege for which he has paid an undisclosed sum. The US company Axiom Space is working on a private space station it claims will be launched in 2022. The people in charge promise “a microgravity laboratory where educators, scientists and researchers conduct life-improving research”, but the most remarkable part of the plan is a proposal to take “high-worth” individuals into space for eight days, at a cost of $55m each.

You can only wonder: in place of Armstrong’s first small step, what will that give the rest of us to marvel at? The revelation that rich people experience weightlessness too?

Richard Branson in front of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo in 2016.
Richard Branson in front of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo in 2016. Photograph: Mark J Terrill/AP

Even if they are not up there with the colossal amounts spent by Nasa in the 1960s and 70s, the sums of money going into the new space race are still mind-boggling. Virgin Galactic came into being thanks to an initial $100m of funding from Branson’s Virgin Group, and subsequently received around four times that amount from a sovereign wealth fund based in Abu Dhabi. Bezos is funding Blue Origin to the tune of at least $1bn a year; SpaceX is reckoned to have an annual turnover of nearly $2bn.

Meanwhile, an emergency is happening back on boring old planet Earth: the growing crisis of climate change, dramatically highlighted by the recent IPCC report that warned we have no more than 12 years to avoid an ecological catastrophe. Many of the new space entrepreneurs, including Branson and Bezos, are funding some research in this field; Musk’s electric cars are an undoubtedly worthwhile contribution. But if the same people have a shared vision of innumerable private rockets leaving Earth whenever there is enough business, it may be worth bearing in mind the volume of carbon emissions that will entail, and the much-reported view of a California-based rocket engineer called Martin Ross, who says: “We now understand that the climate and ozone impacts of rocket exhaust are completely intertwined.” Besides, an even bigger question surely cries out for an answer: if the Earth is burning, why is so much money being frittered away on sending cars, pop stars and bond traders into orbit?

We may now be faced with a kind of space exploration that doesn’t hold out any of the romantic promise of yesteryear, but simply reflects the kind of terrestrial injustices to which the new spacemen perhaps give far too little thought.

• John Harris is a Guardian columnist


John Harris

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
In space, nobody can hear Jeff Bezos. So can Richard Branson go too? | Marina Hyde
News that the Amazon overlord is about to jet off has got the Virgin boss clamouring to get there first, says Guardian columnist Marina Hyde

Marina Hyde

11, Jun, 2021 @2:13 PM

Article image
Space: how far have we gone – and where are we going?
Billionaire entrepreneurs are trying to create rockets fit for human travel, while government agencies spend billions furthering their explorations. But we are still a long way off from making our way to the red planet

Oliver Holmes

19, Nov, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Stephen Hawking gave space travel his blessing. Now plutocrats claim him as their own | Catherine Bennett
Intergalactic plans by Elon Musk and others have little to do with looking up at the stars

Catherine Bennett

18, Mar, 2018 @6:02 AM

Article image
The moon was once a frontier. But new worlds now beckon | Martin Rees
Apollo 11’s Moon landing enthralled my generation. But the cosmos holds other planetary secrets that space exploration could unlock

Martin Rees

20, Jul, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
Virgin Galactic tests new spaceplane
Spacewatch Replacement craft’s high-altitude glide test was first free flight since 2014 fatal accident

Stuart Clark

08, Dec, 2016 @9:30 PM

Article image
Could space-going billionaires be the vanguard of a cosmic revolution? | Martin Rees
For humanity truly to slip the surly bonds of Earth, private funds and intrepid thrill-seekers will be required, says astronomer Martin Rees

Martin Rees

30, Apr, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
How I learned to love the real Neil Armstrong and embrace the space race | Maggie Aderin Pocock
The Apollo 11 commander taught me to look beyond stereotypes, says the Sky at Night presenter Maggie Aderin Pocock

Maggie Aderin-Pocock

04, Jan, 2020 @9:00 AM

Article image
Rocket men: how billionaires are using celebrities as PR for their space projects
Critics see the ‘awful business’ of private space tourism as having little technological or exploration value

Richard Luscombe

13, Oct, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
The Guardian view on moon landings: a new race for space | Editorial
Editorial: The Apollo 11 mission inspired the world. What has happened in the ensuing half-century?


19, Jul, 2019 @5:25 PM

Article image
Space exploration should be an initiative of nations, not just some rich guy | Van Badham
There are times I really hope that intelligent life from outer space is NOT observing us

Van Badham

09, Feb, 2018 @4:03 AM