Going anywhere fancy for your holidays, are you? Maybe you’re one of those who’ve given up in despair and you’re dusting off the deckchairs, hoping the sun shines.
Jeff Bezos is taking a trip on Tuesday. He’s going into space and he’s using his own rocket. That’s what Sir Richard Branson did last Sunday. Elon Musk is planning one, too, and he’ll be using Branson’s rocket plane. How very thrilling for them and, if they are to be believed, for the rest of us, too. Because they say they’re blazing a trail for us all. Opening up the exciting prospect of space tourism.
There’s one slight snag.
Bezos is the richest man in the world, Musk isn’t far behind him and Branson has the odd billion stashed away on his very own tax haven island in the Caribbean. Not that you need billions. If things go according to plan, you’ll soon be able to book a flight for a trifling £200,000. That’s for a return trip, you’ll be relieved to hear. It works out at roughly £18,000 a minute.
Richard Branson, pictured, was blasted to the edge of space last Sunday and returned safely to earth
Fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos, pictured, is planning to go to space in his own rocket, Blue Origin, which he claims is better than Branson’s as it can go higher
The Musk flight is a bit pricier. They auctioned the spare seat on Tuesday’s flight a while back and the anonymous winner snapped it up for a modest $28 million. But he pulled out on Thursday after an apparent ‘diary clash’ and an 18-year-old boy is taking his place. Lucky lad.
Bezos says his rocket (Blue Origin) is superior to Branson’s because it goes higher. It gets above the Karman Line, the 62-mile mark that is internationally recognised as the boundary of space. But who’s measuring? You still get a magnificent view of our planet in all its breath-taking glory.
Rather more to the point, who cares?
Let’s try to swallow our envy that billionaires get to cruise the cosmos while most of us can’t even manage a week in Crete. If they choose to engage in a game that only billionaires can play, why should people like me get all sarcastic about it? It’s their money, isn’t it? Well maybe it is, but it’s our world. And that’s why I care.
Remember what Neil Armstrong did in July 1969? Of course, you do. He became the first human truly to ‘slip the surly bonds of earth’ and fire the imagination of the entire world by setting foot on the moon. Like most of us of a certain age I can remember precisely what I was doing: waiting for my lovely daughter Catherine to be born in a hospital in Cardiff.
The matron (they really were fearsome figures in those days) gave me a choice. I could either wait for the caesarean section to take place or I could go to the pub next door to watch the moon landing. No chance of the husband being at the birth back then. Her strong recommendation was the pub. So I did. Catherine swears she’s never held it against me. Nor did her mother.
Let’s try to swallow our envy that billionaires get to cruise the cosmos while most of us can’t even manage a week in Crete. If they choose to engage in a game that only billionaires can play, why should people like me get all sarcastic about it? It’s their money, isn’t it? Well maybe it is, but it’s our world. And that’s why I care
But who will remember the dawn of the age of so-called space tourism? Only, I suspect, that tiny group of people rich enough to benefit from it. But that’s not the reason for my cynicism over the Branson/Bezos caper. And, yes, that’s what it is. A caper. An utterly pointless exercise in inflating egos that already dwarf the size of the average planet. And don’t believe their boasts. It advances the cause of space exploration not one jot.
True, the passengers will get a wonderful view of our planet, but we are already blessed with the greatest space photograph ever. It was taken by the crew of Apollo 17 when they were 18,000 miles from Earth and has probably been reproduced more than any other image in history. Fifty years later, it is impossible to see it without a deep sense of awe.
I doubt we will learn anything from these 11-minute jaunts that we did not learn decades ago. And we are finding out more all the time from increasingly powerful space telescopes.
Voyager 1 entered interstellar space almost exactly ten years ago. It is an unimaginable 14 billion miles away and is still transmitting data back to Earth.
This is an utterly pointless exercise in inflating egos that already dwarf the size of the average plane
But let me correct myself. We will learn something if, God forbid, the grotesque notion of space tourism succeeds. It will provide yet more proof of the arrogance and skewed priorities of mankind.
Let me offer you one terrifying example of that from this past week. Scientists confirmed on Wednesday that the Amazon rainforest is now emitting more carbon dioxide than it is able to absorb. A billion tons a year. It doesn’t get much more serious than this.
For millions of years the Amazon has been a vital carbon sink, absorbing emissions that are now threatening the very existence of our precious planet. But for decades, humans have been deliberately destroying the forest, felling its ancient trees and setting fires to clear land to grow cheap beef or soya. That vast and wonderful forest that has been helping protect us since the dawn of civilisation has now become a threat to us.
Jeff Bezos, trying desperately to whip up enthusiasm for his space jaunt, has said to see the earth from space ‘changes your relationship with humanity’. Really? You don’t need to go to space to see the Amazon burning. That should tell us all we need to know about our relationship with humanity.
Perhaps I am too cynical. Many applaud those scientists who assure us that if we redouble our efforts we can ultimately colonise another planet somewhere out there.
That is simply nonsense. It took billions of years to create the biomes that make this planet the perfect environment for millions of different forms of life to exist and enable us humans not just to survive but to thrive.
It is also profoundly immoral. We show our gratitude for this gift by saying: Umm … we seem to have screwed up this planet but, not to worry, we’ll find another one so we can screw that one up too.
In my wilder fantasies I imagine a colony of ants, the lowliest of species, discussing the behaviour of humans in whatever language ants employ. Ants have been around for 160 million years and will doubtless survive despite whatever we do to this planet. Odd, isn’t it, they will say, humans seemed to be so much smarter than us but … And then they’ll go to work on another anthill.
The ancient Greeks, as ever, had a word for it. Hubris. It means excessive pride or arrogance. And in Greek drama it was inevitably followed by nemesis. Or downfall.
And yet there is hope. The polls tell us young people especially are distinctly unimpressed by space exploration. In a recent survey in the States, it came 25th out of 26 priorities. They want scientists to concentrate on climate change.
Bezos would do well to contemplate that as he blasts off in a few days and contaminates our fragile atmosphere with yet more carbon. Even the richest man on the planet needs a home to return to.
I’ve got a secret fortune… if only I knew where it was!
Come to think of it, I may have made a big mistake attacking Bezos. I am on the verge of serious wealth myself. All I’ve got to do is find the stamp album I lost 50 years ago.
I was reminded of it by the news this week that the world’s rarest stamp is returning to Britain to go on display in London. It’s the British Guiana 1 cent Magenta and it’s described as the Mona Lisa of the stamp world. Stanley Gibbons paid £6.2 million for it at auction last month, which makes it the most valuable manufactured item ever: 2.5 million times more valuable than 24-carat gold.
The reason I’m pretty confident is that I bought lots of stamps from Stanley Gibbons in my collecting days. You could get a whole bag of them for a pound, no small sum when my income as a paper boy was fifteen shillings a week. Most were rubbish, but there were one or two that earned a place in my album and I distinctly remember some from British Guiana. So if you’re reading this, Jeff, I’m prepared to give you first option.
Now where the hell did I put that album … ?