Mere minutes after touching the edge of space, Jeff Bezos and his fellow Blue Origin crewmates stood back on Earth, shaking champagne at the throng of cameras pointed their way with grins wide enough to see from … well, space. No matter which channel you turned to — CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, MSNBC — the praise was effusive and breathless. But no matter how many times networks replayed the brief launch or how much Anderson Cooper waxed poetic about Amazon founder once being “this young guy building rockets” from 3D printers, it was near impossible to imagine feeling inspired. In just 11 minutes, the Blue Origin flight encapsulated everything wrong with billionaires buying their way into the final frontier.
Once upon a time, the space race might have represented hope and wonder (plus a healthy dose of rah-rah jingoism). Now, from where so many of us are sitting on this rapidly burning planet, watching billionaires like Bezos and Richard Branson take joyrides up to space and back feels like the worst kind of mockery. (Especially when, as has been extensively reported on and documented, Bezos’ company in particular discourages many thousands of its low-paid warehouse workers from being anything other than anonymous vectors of productivity.)
So, sure, it makes sense that these business owners would want to take a turn on their zero gravity rollercoasters. But watching so many ostensible journalists unequivocally herald these literal flights of fancy felt like watching a feed from another reality completely untethered to our own. As our world quite literally burns and crumbles around us, these men pushing the limits of the planet in their (unavoidably, symbolically phallic) rocket ships, simply because they can, is less inspiring than it is completely depressing.
As human beings, we will always have some fascination with the richest class of people who manage to make the world work for them. There’s something inherently juicy and intriguing about the sheer fact of excess, let alone someone who unapologetically owns it. Watching Bezos and his compatriots shake that champagne for the grandest effect, I thought back to all the other moments on television that mirrored this one’s wholehearted embrace of material gain: the Beverly Hillbillies discovering oil, the bored drama of wealthy “Real Housewives” on Bravo and “Dynasty” alike, the love letter to indulgence that is “Gossip Girl.” If the new season of “Succession” features Kendall Roy rocketing into the stratosphere, I wouldn’t blink an eye.
And yet, as my colleague Daniel D’Addario pointed out in a recent column, we’re also now in a moment of “increasingly contradictory feelings across our society about the rich and famous.” Social media is hardly a decisive tool for gauging the overall temperature of an event, and yet it was striking to see so many people both glued to the Bezos launch and wracked with disdain for it. Some even tuned in hoping to see an unbelievably powerful man humbled, as if turning on an episode of “The Crown” in which the royals might unwittingly reveal their humanity.
There was, of course, none of that. Perhaps someday Bezos might reveal that he was, as former astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield dared to hope on his CNN panel, brought back down to Earth metaphorically as well as physically by experiencing the planet he’s so thoroughly conquered from so many miles away. For now, though, the visual of the richest man in the world fist-pumping his way out of a rocket and into a giddy champagne toast says more than either he or the gushing pundits ever could.