Behind recent praise of undertaxed billionaire Jeff Bezos’s brief trip to near-space lie the neglected realities of institutional and environmental degradation, both of which have been eclipsed by vanity space projects and the ostensible prospect of space tourism.
National corporate media echoed the billionaire’s branding of the Blue Origin flight as a “voyage of discovery undertaken in the common good,” and ultimately gave Bezos “the full infomercial treatment” (Jacobin, 7/22/21).
Bezos’s nod to Amazon workers—who helped pay for the 11-minute suborbital flight (one minute longer than the amount of break time those employees are supposed to be allowed for every four hours worked)—was resoundingly “tone-deaf” (NBC News, 7/21/21). Media consumers may remember when strikers turned out in droves last year to protest the treacherous working conditions of Amazon warehouses, especially at JFK8 in Staten Island, New York (Guardian, 2/5/20). In the UK, Amazon workers reportedly opted to pee in bottles “because fulfillment demands [were] too high” (Verge, 8/16/18). Warehouse employees have “described a ‘brutal’ reality of long hours, physical labor, fears about taking time off, workplace injuries” (Insider, 2/10/19)—not to mention Amazon’s resistance to unionization.
In their coverage, media companies deemed the future of space tourism more newsworthy than the exploitation that has, at least partially, funded its infancy.
Swathes of reporting from NPR.org focused on anecdotes—like the first words spoken upon hitting zero gravity (“Who wants a Skittle?”—7/20/21), and how far Blue Origin traveled in comparison to Virgin Galactic, a competing spaceflight company founded by rival oligarch Richard Branson (NPR.org, 7/20/21). In the latter piece, Scott Neuman wrote about Bezos’s bragging rights and compared the two spaceflight companies—favorably depicting the Blue Origin landing. (For the record, Virgin Galactic launched its SpaceShipTwo craft one week before Bezos’s flight.)
Laurel Wamsley, also of NPR, wrote an article (7/20/21) headlined: “Liftoff! Jeff Bezos and Three Crewmates Travel to Space and Back in Under 15 Minutes.” Wamsley alluded to the beginning of the “space tourism era,” and went on to quote Bezos bashing “bureaucracy” as he announced two philanthropic awards.
The Bezos-owned Washington Post unsurprisingly gushed over its billionaire boss’s trip to space, as in Christian Davenport and Dalvin Brown’s fannish lead news report, headlined “Jeff Bezos Blasts Into Space on Own Rocket: ‘Best Day Ever!’” (7/20/21):
Jeff Bezos rocketed past the edge of space Tuesday, launching from the improbable spaceport he has built in the West Texas desert here and fulfilling the lifelong dream of a die-hard Trekkie who was transfixed by the Apollo 11 Moon landing and has pledged to use his fortune to open space for the masses.
The Post published multiple articles this month about the so-called “billionaires’ space race” that framed private suborbital flights—particularly its owner’s—in a distinctly positive light.
“The Billionaires’ Space Efforts May Seem Tone-Deaf, but They’re Important Milestones” (Washington Post, 7/19/21), an op-ed by Miles O’Brien, a science correspondent for PBS NewsHour and an aerospace analyst for CNN, began by calling attention to “wealth disparities and environmental catastrophes,” which he labeled “existential problems.” O’Brien suggested that humankind could mitigate these issues by working to have more “civilians in space”: “Who knows what inspiration and innovation these missions will spark to solve some pressing earthly problems?”
Now that billionaires can go on joy rides into space, we’re apparently one step closer to solving the climate crisis, wealth disparities, worker exploitation, human slavery, mass starvation, access to clean water, state violence and all of the other structural inequities that plague society.
In “The Billionaires’ Space Race Benefits the Rest of Us. Really,” Post opinion columnist Megan McArdle (7/13/21) defended Bezos and Branson from critics, arguing “they probably understand what their critics clearly don’t: how even a fleeting roller-coaster ride into the Earth’s thermosphere can be an enduring contribution to humanity.” In her piece, she failed to distinguish the legitimate practice of space exploration from space tourism, enumerating the supposed limitations of government space programs, and even emphasized the need for public funds to support billionaires’ space efforts.
Of course, the Post columnist did not explain that the US public already greatly subsidizes Bezos’s hobby, through tax rules that make it possible for him to reap billions of dollars while paying little or no federal taxes (Democracy Now!, 7/22/21). McArdle nevertheless invoked free-market language to tout the value of the space tourism industry, arguing that “private entities tend to do better than government—in no small part because private entities face more continuous competitive measures to go a little farther.”
Contrary to the false narrative provided by billionaires and their corporate media mouthpieces, the industry in question has been funded by and for the wealthy—not the masses—because, as Gizmodo (7/19/21) noted:
Space exploration is not the same as space tourism. While the former is conducted for the worthy goal of understanding what’s beyond our atmosphere, the latter only serves the interest of the super-rich who want a thrill and the billionaires who own the companies that can provide it. It’s one of the most glaring illustrations of rising inequality. What’s more, it could widen the gap further by worsening the climate crisis and forcing the most vulnerable to suffer the impacts while the rich snap space selfies.
The tech website Gizmodo pointed out that media companies largely neglected the environmental impact that would result from a lucrative space tourism industry:
The initial climate impact of an individual space tourist flight may be comparatively small, but they will add up. And each flight signals something more ominous to come.
Something more ominous is already underway—the climate crisis. Although national corporate media have been reluctant to cover this dilemma in the past, they have begun to cover environmental catastrophes more frequently. However, as Olivia Riggio of FAIR.org (7/22/21) reported, there is a stark disconnect between reporting on the climate crisis and progressive environmental solutions.
According to Media Matters for America (Twitter, 7/20/21; Gizmodo, 7/21/21), morning shows “spent nearly as much time on Jeff Bezos’s space launch in one day than on the climate crisis in 2020.” They dedicated 267 minutes of coverage to the climate crisis during all of last year; on the single day of July 20, 2021, Bezos’s Blue Origin flight received 212 minutes of coverage.
The billionaires’ space race is a spectacle, one that will ultimately exacerbate inequality and climate change. It is depressing but not at all surprising that media companies have deemed billionaire space cowboys and zero-gravity Skittles more newsworthy than institutional failures and the impending climate catastrophe.