Richard Branson drinking champaign after space launch

Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson, drinks champagne with crew members after flying into space aboard a Virgin Galactic vessel, a voyage he described as the "experience of a lifetime" -- and one he hopes will usher in an era of lucrative space tourism. (Photo: Patrick T. Fallon//AFP via Getty Images)

The Emperor's New Rocket: Last Words on Branson's Big Ride

I'm fine with launching his wealthy clientele into space. It's bringing them back I’m not crazy about.

Historians say that Cleopatra and Marc Antony once made a bet to see who could hold the most expensive feast. After Marc Antony served a lavish meal, Cleopatra crushed her most valuable pearl earring into a wine goblet filled with vinegar and drank it. Like that feast, the billionaire space race is a race to see who can squander the most money, but this time it's the rest of us who will drink the dregs.

Two days have passed since Richard Branson took his ride. Look at this picture, then look at this one, and tell me whether this seems like the behavior of a stable civilization. But history, as always, will have the last word.

Richard Branson played dress-up for his event in a "uniform" that looked like a castoff from the Galaxy Quest wardrobe closet. I'd be embarrassed for him, but nobody dared tell him how silly he looks so he doesn't know. And nobody had the nerve to tell him that he's a self-indulgent parasite, a space-age Nero fiddling while the world burns. The emperor's new rocket is an extravagant toy for spoiled rich boys, a Christmas special from the most expensive toy store in hell.

"The emperor's new rocket is an extravagant toy for spoiled rich boys, a Christmas special from the most expensive toy store in hell."

Billionaires take from the world's governments but belong to no country. Politically, as well as physically, they soar above earthly borders. Branson may be British, but the country that issues his passport matters less than his citizenship in the tiny principality of the ultra-wealthy. That image of him spraying champagne is a snapshot of empire. So is his decision not to fly to the so-called "Karman line," 62 miles above sea level, the commonly-recognized boundary of space. Branson's 50-mile-high flight didn't technically reach "space." But it was high enough to earn "astronaut wings" from the Federal Aviation Administration, which is probably all Branson cared out about.

Those wings are the 21st century equivalent of the tiger's heads on the walls of minor officials in the British Raj. They're records of artificial conquest, papier- mache trophies for people who dress their privilege in gilded uniforms and call it courage. Even the name, "Virgin Galactic," is grandiose. The galaxy is a very large place, and Branson's outfit specializes in sub-orbital flight. It's like an ant walking from one leaf to the next and calling it an "interplanetary voyage."

But the hype, along with the vanity, is the point. Branson says he wants to start a space tourism business, and his flight was clearly a publicity stunt for that venture. That idea seems like a long shot (no pun intended), but then, sure, there must be a few thousand people who can pay a quarter of a million dollars to ride his airplane. Unfortunately, two of his best potential customers are setting up their own space companies instead. Jeff Bezos, who's poisoning this planet while preaching about the next one, takes his space junket next week.

Then there's Elon Musk. Elon thinks he can reach Mars, even though his cars have trouble crossing North Phoenix. Musk wants to spend trillions of dollars on a trip to a hot and arid world with an unbreathable atmosphere, when he could save his money and just drive to Palmdale instead. But the spending is a large part of the point. Musk's stunt of launching a Tesla into space was the quintessential "fuck you" to the other inhabitants of our tormented planet. They say that car just passed Mars, which means its "self-driving" function was probably set for Venus.

Among the stories in the news while Branson flew:

  • The U.S. Forest Service captured video of a fire whirl--a "spinning vortex column of ascending hot air and gases rising from a fire" -- on June 29 at the Tennant fire in Klamath National Forest, near the Oregon border.

    Fire whirls carry aloft smoke, debris and flames, the Forest Service said. (Los Angeles Times)

  • Fire whirls, or "firenadoes," are not to be confused with the PyroCb firestorm seen last week in the British Columbia wildfire, which "typically forms when a fire rages with enough intensity that it creates updrafts of smoke, water vapor and ... forming clouds that can generate thunder, lightning and tornado-force winds." (BBC News)

In other planetary news during Branson's journey:

  • On Friday it was 130degF in Death Valley, and almost as hot again on Saturday ... these are likely the hottest anywhere on the earth since records began being kept around 1880 (and) likely the hottest the earth has been since the beginning of civilization." (Informed Comment)
  • More than one billion sea creatures were killed in British Columbia, according to a marine biologist's calculations, cooked to death by the heat wave. (The Weather Network)
  • Methane emissions increased by 9% (about 50 million tons) in 2017 compared to 2000-2006. Human activities (anthropogenic) appear to be the main drivers of this increase. (Climate and Change Coalition)
  • California is off to another record-breaking year of wildfires as the state enters its most dangerous months ... More than twice as many acres burned in the first six months of this year than during the same period last year--and hundreds more fires, officials said. (Los Angeles Times)

And, on this burning world, hunger. A new report by the UN World Food Programme found that "between 720 and 811 million people in the world faced hunger in 2020 - as many as 161 million more than in 2019." It concluded that a staggering 2.36 billion people lacked access to adequate food in 2020, an increase of 320 million over the previous year. Nearly 12 percent of the world's population was severely food insecure.

"Billionaires take from the world's governments but belong to no country. Politically, as well as physically, they soar above earthly borders."

Since the space billionaires love to talk about the future, the report also painted a dark picture for the world's children, estimating that "22.0 percent (149.2 million) of children under 5 years of age were affected by stunting, 6.7 percent (45.4 million) were suffering from wasting and 5.7 percent (38.9 million) were overweight." It added: "The actual figures are expected to be higher because of the Covid-19 pandemic ... "

These events--billionaire space jaunts, hunger, climate change--are interconnected. The wasted money's only part of it. The real link is the imbalance of power reflected in their extravagance. As long as the world's politicians cater to billionaires' whims, it will be impossible to feed the hungry or address climate change.

As is often the case, these billionaire ego trips are aligned with big-money opportunities--government money, as Michael Hiltzik explains in the Los Angeles Times. That's an even more bitter cup to swallow. But they're not acting as businesspeople here. The government money merely indulges their whims and fantasies. Increasingly, that's what governments do for the wealthy. Governments could explore space more efficiently by eliminating the billionaire middlemen, but they won't. That reflects one of the defining crises of our time, perhaps the defining crisis: the transfer of public wealth to private hands.

Branson got a head start in the hype, generating millions of dollars in free publicity. That resulted in headlines like this one, from TIME magazine: "Virgin Galactic Just Got FAA Approval to Launch Customers Into Space for $250,000 a Seat." I'm fine with launching his wealthy clientele into space. It's bringing them back I'm not crazy about. If they can send one billionaire into space, why not send them all?

Oh, I know. Many billionaires are very nice people. (Well, some may be.) But their niceness has limits. Branson and Bezos consider themselves environmentalists, for example, but they don't back the major economic and political changes that would truly address climate change. They never will, since those changes would dismantle their make-believe world. Nor will they ever understand that they are the products of a broken process, not deserving winners in a humanely organized world. They perpetuate this system with campaign contributions, influence-peddling, and "charitable" giving. It's like a pyroCb fire cloud, fueling the vortex that created it. But it can't last much longer. This empire is consuming too much, too fast.

Cleopatra's empire fell shortly after her death, torn apart by inequality, decadent rulers, and slave rebellions. Will today's empire go the same way? It certainly shares its predecessor's excesses, irrationalities, and brutalities. But, as we said, history will have the last word. Meanwhile, the media replays the video of the latest launch, the rockets' glare growing smaller and smaller in the morning sky until it looks like a pearl earring dissolving in a wine goblet.

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