Space Billionaires, Please Read the Room

Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are choosing a terrible time to leave Earth.

An illustration of two astronauts on the moon. They are holding a flag with a 100 dollar bill on it.
Getty; The Atlantic

Dear billionaires, no one cares whom you beat to space.

After Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, announced that he would join the first crewed flight by his rocket company, Blue Origin, later this month, Richard Branson just couldn’t let himself be outdone.* So now Branson, merely the world’s 589th richest person, is joining the crew of his next Virgin Galactic flight on Sunday, nine days before Bezos goes vertical.

All of this to go to “space.” Branson will go only about 50 miles up, where the military says space starts. Bezos will go 12 miles higher, just past the internationally recognized Karman Line, but he’ll be there for only four minutes.

Could there be a worse time for two über-rich rocket owners to take a quick jaunt toward the dark? Especially in the United States, the climate crisis is now actually starting to feel like a crisis. The western U.S. is in the thick of fire season, experiencing record-breaking drought and temperatures. Last week, Bezos’s hometown of Seattle hit 108 degrees. Hurricane season is starting early, and a once-in-200-years flood just ravaged northern Mississippi. Oh yeah, then there’s the pandemic that is very much still not over. Anyone would want a break from this planet, but the billionaires are virtually the only ones who are able to leave.

Leaving Earth right now isn’t just bad optics; it’s almost a scene out of a twisted B-list thriller: The world is drowning and scorching, and two of the wealthiest men decide to ... race in their private rocket ships to see who can get to space a few days before the other. If this were a movie, these men would be Gordon Gekko and Hal 9000—both venerated and hated. Maybe, I don’t know, delay the missions a bit until people around the world are no longer desperately waiting for vaccines to save them from a deadly virus.

To their credit, the two billionaires aren’t totally oblivious. In recent years, Branson has proposed a climate dividend, while Bezos has pledged to spend $10 billion on climate efforts, though we still don’t know where most of that money will go. But given what humanity has been through in the past year and a half, I can’t help but wonder, what are they thinking? (I reached out to both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic for comment and neither company responded. Branson has insisted that he is not in a competition with Bezos.)

And it’s not just them that make this display feel so gross. Their fellow billionaire Elon Musk (currently the No. 2 richest person, if you’re keeping track) may not be far behind in his own space travels and is in the midst of ruining the night sky with his mega-constellation of satellites. While Bezos and Branson will be in space—I mean, “space”—for just a few minutes, their departure is yet another reminder of all the other earthly things they can avoid that the rest of us can’t. Billionaires have purchased private islands, built underground bunkers, and gotten LASIK to prepare for not having glasses during the climate apocalypse. They can’t truly escape Earth now, and they likely never will, but they can avoid helping make this planet better.

However, even after their trip past the atmosphere, the space billionaires still have to come back here and face the world. When they are pushed upward into the sky, they will live-stream their experience, their bodies briefly floating, staring out at the curvature of our delicate and beautiful planet, all of us invisible. Will leaving Earth change them?

This is one of the universal sentiments that astronauts express once setting foot back on the ground: Looking at Earth, from up above, gives you a different perspective, enough to shift something inside. “The thing that really surprised me was that [Earth] projected an air of fragility,” the Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins said. “And why, I don’t know. I don’t know to this day. I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile.” Maybe this quick trip really will change the billionaires, but I’m not counting on it. After all, they’re only going to “space.”

*This article previously misstated that Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are vying to become the first billionaires in space. In fact, at least one billionaire, Charles Simonyi, has already traveled to space.