The billionaires have been going to space lately. And they’re taking the millionaires with them.
The vanity rocket projects of a few deeply irritating men — Elon Musk (SpaceX), Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) and Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic) — have made a lot of headlines this year, and particularly this summer, when Bezos and Branson boarded their respective spacecrafts to enjoy a few weightless moments outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Both men brought along a small “crew”: Branson took employees, while Bezos selected an 18-year-old fill-in for a charity auction winner, as well as his own brother and Wally Funk, an 82-year-old aviation pioneer who had been among a group of women to undergo the same screening tests as NASA’s Mercury astronauts in the early 1960s. These passengers were chosen, of course, for either their personal connections to the billionaires or their symbolic value.
The next phase will be different.
Here’s my thinking on why 90-year-old William Shatner (and many other celebrities) are expected on the launchpad in the coming weeks and months: A) They can afford to pay full price for the experience; and B) even when they don’t, they’re automatic, unpaid spokespeople, the best publicity you could ask for. Another successful Blue Origin flight is only news to those who keep up with the latest in aerospace engineering, and the novelty is probably wearing off for them, too. Put Captain Kirk himself on there, and assuming his body withstands the extreme g-force it takes to reach suborbital space, you can count on tons of fawning talk show coverage along with a day of positive social media chatter. (Full disclosure: I once teased Shatner on Twitter by deliberately conflating Star Trek with Star Wars and have been blocked ever since.)
A-listers hitching expensive rides to the edge of the great beyond are the sugar coating on a very bitter pill: Mega-rich entrepreneurs aren’t pushing toward the next stage of civilizational progress so much as developing the ultimate amusement park rides, which directly contribute to the climate crisis. When you read that Tom Cruise is working with Musk to shoot a feature film entirely in space — which will never happen, by the way — you understand that it will take one Hollywood stunt after another to make this cosmic dick-measuring contest remotely palatable to a public that can’t afford its medical bills. Because there is no plausible way for the Rocket Boys to escape the planet for good, they’ve elected to have the best time they can while nominally stuck here with the rest of us. For this they have been rightly and continually criticized, but wait until Lady Gaga posts an Instagram selfie from 50 miles overhead, when the stans will bend over backwards to frame it as an iconic moment and massive win for the culture at large.
Celebs also applaud each other for making the vertiginous leap into zero gravity, further adding to the popular impression of the privatized space race as a feel-good adventure on behalf of all, instead of a glaring measure of hoarded wealth and economic inequality. Bezos would much rather you see Shatner congratulated by his famous friends on social media or TV than, say, reports about the toxic work environment and recent failures of Blue Origin. He, Branson and Musk — who is no doubt meanwhile searching for another prominent alt girlfriend now that he and Grimes have split — will keep using entertainment figures for cover, because if we start to notice that these flights are packed with interchangeable suits from the investor class, there will be no way to deflect on the question of their value to humanity. Space would just be Wall Street.
But I like to imagine the ruse of rolling out the red carpet for these expeditions won’t play for long. We can get bored with anything eventually. And in the plausible event of a tragedy — say, a handful of beloved actors and musicians killed in an accident — the billionaire responsible is bound to experience a whole new kind of contempt, the dark inverse of the favorable PR they gain by launching celebrities to fantastic heights. They can bask in the reflected glow of these stars for a while, but they’re bound to come crashing down to the truth: Nobody really likes them.