One very small step for mankind, one giant ego trip for Jeff Bezos. The world’s richest man ejaculated himself into space this week, in what was not quite the first suborbital tourist flight – Richard Branson beat him up there – but definitely the fastest. “Everybody who’s been up into space, they say that it changes them,” Bezos said earnestly, of a trip that lasted roughly the time it takes to hard boil an egg.
If you say so, Jeff. But it looked very much like the intergalactic equivalent of one of those cruises where a vast herd is disgorged ashore for a brief, bewildered trample over the nearest landmark before being rounded up and whisked away to the next port. Sure, you’ve been to Venice, technically. But which one was Venice, again?
Anyway, the 57-year-old Bezos said that seeing our blue and green orb from space made him appreciate its fragility, so no snide remarks about whether the cowboy hat he insisted on wearing just screams “midlife crisis” or how much his rocket resembles a penis (very much, since you ask). “I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer,” Bezos said mistily afterwards. “Because you guys paid for all this.” Well, yes, in a very real sense we did. And now we’d like our money back. Someone calculated that the $5.5bn or so that the trip had cost could have bought enough food to stop 37.5 million people starving.
Compare and contrast with his ex-wife, Mackenzie Scott, who intends to give away a $38bn divorce settlement she says was “enabled by systems that need to change”, and has already dispensed $8.5bn to causes including food banks, Black colleges and female-led charities. Every Amazon employee and customer paid for that too, but perhaps a bit less grudgingly. If only there was some kind of mechanism, ideally administered by governments on behalf of their nations, whereby people with more money than they can possibly ever spend were required to redistribute some of it among the people without whom they couldn’t have made it. Crazy idea, obviously, although less crazy than Bezos’s suggestion of moving all the polluting industries on Earth into space, to protect our fragile planet by ruining some other one instead.
His plans to take paying tourists into orbit may yet founder on this being the nichest of niche markets. He won’t say how much a ticket would cost – but suffice to say that if you need to ask, then you can’t afford it. (An unnamed individual paid $28m at auction for a seat on this inaugural flight, before crying off at the last minute claiming “scheduling conflicts”, leaving one wondering what kind of person is too busy to boldly go where no hedge funder has been before; the seat was eventually taken by a Dutch financier’s 18-year-old son.)
But like Branson and Elon Musk, his fellow dystopian adventurers in space, Bezos senses opportunities for commercial exploitation of some kind beyond this Earthly realm, and wants in on the ground floor. Branson thinks there might be a market for using rockets to move people super-fast between cities on Earth, rather like Concorde only more so. Musk seems intent on cornering an emerging private sector market in shuttling crew and cargo to space stations, created by cutbacks in the publicly funded Nasa space flight programme.
If Bezos’s flying phallus represented little more than a restless billionaire’s attempt to kill the emptiness inside, then it might be galling but it wouldn’t ultimately matter. It would just be what happens when you get so rich and powerful that there is nobody left with the guts to tell you the hat looks ridiculous, and so does a business model seemingly based on exploiting warehouse workers while providing other millionaires with a glorified fairground ride into space.
But if what it actually portends is the unchecked commercial exploitation of the ultimate virgin environment by an elite group of super-billionaires more powerful than many governments, encouraged by the unfettered way they were allowed to operate on Earth to believe they can do the same in the sky – well, then, Houston, we have a problem. Better hope for all our sakes that this really is a midlife vanity project after all.
Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist