Rocket men: how billionaires are using celebrities as PR for their space projects

He was Star Trek's Captain James T Kirk. William Shatner, a nonagenarian actor,'s short, thrilling ride around the planet today is less about the advancement of the species than it is about supporting Blue Origin, the private space firm owned by Jeff Bezos.
The booking of Bezos' New Shepard rocket systems' second crewed space traveler, who is arguably the most famous in fictional space travel history, has brought about a lot of positive publicity that no one could have imagined.

Blue Origin, a troubled Washington-based firm that has been plagued by allegations of sexism, toxic workplace cultures, and safety shortcuts, welcomes the 90-year-old Shatner as the oldest person in space.

Bezos refutes these claims and insists that short-term joyrides like Shatners and the maiden crewed flight New Shepard in July, which he and his brother Mark travelled on, are essential to his long-term vision of moving Earth's heavy industry into space.

He says the rocket and its sister, the long-delayed but much-vaunted New Glenn, are pioneering spacecraft that can be reused. This will change the way countries work in space, while reducing traditionally government-funded expenses.

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, carries Sirisha Bandla, a crew member, on his shoulders as they celebrate their flight to space on July 11. Photograph: Andres Leighton/AP

However, environmental concerns about the proliferation of propellant-hungry satellites are not the only concern. Cynics also see little value in space tourism. Companies owned by multi-billionaires like Bezos, Virgins Richard Branson, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, charge astronomical amounts for an excursion to the stars.

Analysts believe that the famous jaunts of Branson and Bezos are great for grabbing attention, but they deliver nothing more than moments of weightlessness. This is compared to the 70-mile distance from Earth when NASA sent astronauts 250,000 miles to the moon in 1969.

Space exploration is about the future. Human exploration is all about the future. Scott Galloway, a professor at New York University's Stern School of Business in brand strategy marketing, wrote that the billionaire space race will promote a different kind of future.

One clue: After his flight, Bezos stated that he wanted to thank all Amazon employees and customers because they paid for it. It was our money. Prime members make up eighty-two per cent of American households.

We won't have astronauts in the Prime space future. We will have egonauts. Space tourism, whatever your view of it as a human endeavour, is a terrible business.

Bezos seems to be in agreement, at least to a certain extent.

He was interviewed by CNN in July and asked to respond to critics that said such flights were joyrides only for the wealthy. Billionaires should spend their energy, time and money solving real problems on Earth.

They are largely correct, I believe. He said that we must do both. Blue Origins was about building a path to space for future generations, and those incredible things will solve our problems here on Earth.

Jeff Bezos stated that Blue Origins was about creating a pathway to space for future generations to do incredible things. Photograph: Tony Gutierrez/AP

Bezos has a lot to offer paying passengers. He is also in the forefront of a lucrative industry that is expected to reach more than $2.5bn by 2027. Blue Origin is reported to have sold $100m worth of tickets. All this while Amazon continues to resist unionization and is being criticized for its exploitative pay and conditions. $30 million was paid by the winner of an auction to secure a seat on his inaugural flight. He later had to cancel due to scheduling conflicts.

Galloway stated that Mr Bezos could raise the minimum wage to $20 an hour if he was serious about doing something.

Branson, however, traveled to the edge to space nine days earlier than Bezos aboard Virgin Galactics VSS Unicorn rocketship. He also opened sales for flights that will begin in January next year.

Musk's SpaceX venture, which is currently ferrying US astronauts from the International Space Station in partnership with Nasa is the only one to have sent a private crew to orbit. The Inspiration4 mission last month, which raised over $210m for St Jude Childrens Hospital, is considered a precursor to larger plans like taking tourists to the ISS or around the moon.

Earl Blumenauer, a Democratic congressman from Oregon, proposed a tax on space tourists, and companies that fly them.

The wealthy cannot enjoy space exploration as a tax-free vacation. He stated that billionaires who fly to space to create scientific value, should pay the same taxes as ordinary Americans.

I am not against this type of space innovation. Things that are purely for entertainment or tourism, and do not have a scientific purpose should be supported by the public good.