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In the past month, two billionaires have gone to space, kicking off the official start of a new industry that has never existed before: space tourism. This week Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, was launched into space on his Blue Origin rocket, spending a few minutes looking at the curvature of Earth and experiencing weightlessness.
Eleven days before, Richard Branson rode the Virgin Galactic rocket plane to do the same thing. Elon Musk isn’t staging a public space ride like Bezos and Branson, but his SpaceX company is perhaps the most impressive entrant into this new economic space.
Nevertheless, the reaction to the Virgin and Blue Origin launches ranged, much to my chagrin, from complete indifference to open hostility. As usual, the most disappointing reactions came from social media.
“I wish I could be happy,” said one commenter on Facebook, “but with so much poverty and suffering here on earth, it’s difficult for me to see why I should care about a couple of billionaires spending so much money and time with their selfish endeavors.”
I saw this same sentiment repeated over and over on social media. I also overheard the same thing when I had lunch at a local restaurant Tuesday, as four people at the table next to mine took turns ridiculing Bezos and his “vanity project,” taking him to task for not using his immense wealth to “help people here on Earth.”
This is the modern politics of resentment in a nutshell. Great wealth is seen as a corrupting influence, and any time a wealthy individual uses their vast resources for anything other than philanthropy, they are viewed with contempt.
But such sentiments are wildly misplaced.
Consider, for instance, the amount of economic opportunity that has already been created by the design, development, manufacture, assembly and ongoing management of this initiative from beginning to end. How many jobs were either created or supported by the creation of a brand new industry that was created from nothing?
Consider the workers in support industries that produced parts, the truck drivers that transported equipment and fuel, the engineers that oversaw the development and testing of the rockets, and the workers — from security guards to janitors to computer technicians — that supported the effort through years of development through launch.
Those are real people — tens if not hundreds of thousands of them — who earn real paychecks that they can use to feed their family, put gas in their car, buy clothes or maybe buy a house, all earned due to the supposedly “selfish” vanity project of Bezos, Branson and Musk. Billions of dollars have been injected into the economy that would not have otherwise been there.
Beyond that, though, it is ambitious endeavors like this — often dismissed as pointless distractions from “real problems” by the neo-luddites in our country — that have resulted in massive expansions of human knowledge and technological development. Consider the legacy of the space program, and all of the scientific discoveries and technological advancements that resulted from it.
Today you have a device in your pocket that contains the total collection of all human knowledge. Using the logic applied to Bezos and company, the investment in the development of the smartphone was likewise a complete and total waste of money, because that money “could have been used to address big problems in this country.” But the effect of its development has created millions of jobs, trillions of dollars of economic activity, and has generated massive economic expansion worldwide for billions of people.
That is what the critics who ridicule “billionaire vanity projects” don’t understand.
Beyond what we are seeing today, the ambitions of the billionaires behind these private space companies are far greater than 10-minute rides to space. Blue Origin, for instance, is developing a new much larger rocket, as well as a new lunar lander and even a space station for Earth orbit.
In the future, this industry will likely result in millions of people living and working in space. When that reality is realized, the impact from these billionaires vainly launching themselves into space will lead to untold economic explosion, jobs and wealth creation worldwide.
I will likely never have the money to take this ride to space, but I am very glad it is happening. It returns our eyes to the horizon, and will leave the world a much better place than it otherwise would have been. That is worthy of praise and enthusiasm, not scorn.