Space – the final frontier for profit-seekers like Richard Branson | @guardianletters

Letters: Earth no longer has what Rosa Luxemburg called an ‘outside’ – a non-capitalist realm in which new investments can be profitably made. But Branson and other investors such as Elon Musk have an answer to this problem

The loss of Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo (One pilot dead, one seriously injured as Virgin Galactic crashes in Mojave desert, 1 November) should give us pause for thought. Speaking after the crash, Branson’s team likened the entrepreneur to Ferdinand Magellan, the adventurer who opened up the globe to trade in the 16th century. The comparison between Magellan and Branson is compelling, and not only because large numbers of Magellan’s crew died of scurvy and starvation during their voyages.

In the same way that Magellan and other adventurers such as Columbus opened up the globe to trade and profit-making, Branson and other “spacefarers” now hope to open up outer space as a new realm of investment. As James Ormrod and I described in our 2007 book Cosmic Society, Earth no longer has what Rosa Luxemburg called in the early 20th century an “outside” – a non-capitalist realm in which new investments can be profitably made. But Branson and other investors such as Elon Musk have an answer to this problem. They are now making the cosmos into capitalism’s “outside”, a new realm of profitability. There is another advantage to this “outside”, there being no “natives” there to resist.

We now have the bizarre spectacle of economic crises, wars and climate change prevailing down here on Earth, but elites each paying £157,000 for a brief encounter in outer space. Branson’s next project is said to be hotels in space. These will enable movie stars and others to contemplate Earthly apocalypses from a safe distance.

Branson’s adventure is a sad symptom of our times and few tears should be shed if his project is now abandoned. 
Peter Dickens
School of applied social science, University of Brighton

• Richard Branson’s statement that “Nasa has lost about 3% of everyone who’s gone into space, and re-entry has been their biggest problem” which he made in a Guardian interview (One giant leap, Weekend, 22 February) and which you quoted last Saturday (History of the project, 1 November), is technically correct although very misleading, as the statistics exclude the seven fatalities in the Challenger disaster, which never got into space, and incidents on the ground such as the Apollo 1 fire.

But his assertion that “For a government-owned company, you can just about get away with losing 3% of your clients. For a private company you can’t really lose anybody” is a quite unjustified slight against public servants that should not go unchallenged. Has he not heard of the Ford Pinto, the Hatfield train crash, or (telling name) the Herald of Free Enterprise? Not a state industry in sight.

There is also an important distinction: Nasa’s astronauts are not paying clients, but employees, paid to do a dangerous job, as yesterday’s tragedy demonstrates.
Tim Lidbetter

• The death of one pilot and serious injury to the second in the crash of Virgin Galactic’s space plane in the Mojave desert highlights how difficult the consideration of the risks involved are when key decisions are made. I am sure that Mr Branson was closely involved in those crucial decisions. Nearer to home, his decision not to continue funding the Northern Rock Foundation, the charitable arm of Northern Rock, acquired by Virgin Money, clearly cannot be described as a tragedy. However, the foundation was the biggest funder charities in the north-east of England, and the loss of millions of pounds a year is having a major impact on the lives of some of the most vulnerable in society.
Philip Latham
Riding Mill, Northumberland

• The global distributions of wealth and income are so severely skewed that it is almost impossible to think correctly about them, and Zoe Williams (Branson’s space tourism exposes our obscene inequality, 2 November) does not do so. She refers to “a few hundred people who can set fire to this kind of money”. Let’s say that someone might be prepared to spend up to a few percent of their net worth on Branson’s £150,000 jaunt. Call it dollars and, according to the global wealth report by Credit Suisse (Report, 15 October), there are comfortably more than one and half a million people in the world with wealth in excess of $10,000,000. Is that outrageous, or not? And why? The very confusing shape of the wealth distribution has enabled the right to muddle a great many minds about who is middle-income and who is wealthy, and how well aligned their interests are; commentators on the left should not play into their hands by compounding the confusion.
Keith Braithwaite
Beckenham, Kent

• If Zoe Williams is regretting the enormous gap between rich and poor I agree with her, but if she is hoping that the rich will change their spending habits I fear she has a long wait ahead. A rich man’s trip to space is the equivalent of a not-so-rich man’s trip to the top of Everest or Mont Blanc or the Shard. None is available to the poor.
Charles Dorin

The GuardianTramp

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