You have to feel for the American pilot Wally Funk. You would sympathise with anyone with that name, but she has had a particularly mixed week. On one hand, at 82, she is set to finally fulfil her life’s ambition and travel into space. Funk was one of the most promising female candidates for the Mercury 13 programme in the 1960s, but was denied a spot because of her gender. Right stuff, wrong parts. On Thursday, the Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, announced on Instagram that Wally would become the oldest person in space as one of the four passengers on New Shepard, the rocket being launched by his company Blue Origin on 20 July. “I didn’t think I’d ever get to go up,” Funk said in an interview.
The obvious downside, which she was too polite to mention, is that she has to ride with Bezos, his brother and one other, in a kind of UberPool from hell. She ought to have been more specific to the genie. Midlife does strange things to men, and so does being a billionaire. The combination leads to some odd outcomes. Not content with building his own rockets, Jeff, as he approaches 60, has decided to start riding them as well. Towers and yachts are so passé. Private space travel is the thing. Elon Musk is at it, too, and presumably a load of guys in China.
To fund his exploits, Jeff sells about $1bn of Amazon stock every year, in the way that others might save up for a golf weekend. When you have reached his level of capital, Jeff has said, there are a limited number of things you can spend the money on, which is true if your frame of reference is only “hobbies”. There are plenty of billionaires showing that you can be much more creative with your largesse. Only last year, Bill Gates created a pandemic as a pretext for injecting everyone with 5G-enabled mind-control nanobots.
Not to be outdone, England’s own Sir Richard Branson responded to Bezos’s announcement by saying he would go up on his own Virgin Galactic ship, SpaceShipTwo, nine days before Jeff and co. Branson is the original and worst ego-spaceflight tycoon. Since Virgin Galactic was founded in 2004, the company has established a reputation for glorious ineptitude, a kind of Virgin Trains of the skies with the advantage that nobody has to use it to commute.
The low point was the death of the pilot Michael Alsbury in 2014, but Galactic has consistently overpromised and underdelivered. Whenever Branson talks about space he sounds like a schoolmate who has never quite got his act together and instead reverts to unrealistic dreams.
Before we know it, he will be retraining in reflexology. Virgin Homeopathic. True to form, his flight on 11 July won’t even technically go into space, according to international standards, merely quite high in the sky. EasyJet would have been cheaper. ”My mum taught me to never give up and to reach for the stars,” Branson said. I think it might have been a metaphor, Richard.
It represents a peculiar point in evolutionary history. The first monkeys in space went very much against their will. Now the most privileged and powerful monkeys of all are battling for the chance. At work, these men fight to replace human employees with robots. Then in their free time they insist on leisure activities that obviously ought to be done by robots.
As cock-offs go, it’s pretty lame. It’s not as though they’re doing anything impressive when they get up there. Jeff isn’t walking on the moon or repairing the solar panels on the space station. He’s sitting down for a few hours. If sitting in a chair on top of billions of dollars’ worth of your employees’ labour shaped like a penis that could explode at any moment isn’t a metaphor for capitalism, I don’t know what is. We must assume Wally hasn’t studied Amazon’s history of labour disputes in much detail before she agreed to ride on Jeff’s La-Z-Bomb.
At the time of writing, the fourth passenger on the Bezos mission has yet to be announced. We only know they bought the ticket at auction, paying $28m for the privilege. Wally must be anxious. Thinking about it, there is an ideal British candidate, a man who is familiar with paying a high price for travel with eccentric billionaires. Prince Andrew, your helmet awaits.
• This article was amended on 4 July 2021 to clarify that SpaceShipTwo will not enter space as it is defined by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.