July 12, 2021 by Ethics in Tech board member Brett Wilkins for Common Dreams

Progressive politicians and advocates this week responded to the so-called billionaire blastoff—the space race between Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos—with derision and calls to solve earthly problems of people and planet before spending billions of their own and taxpayers’ dollars shooting for the stars.

In a bid to promote space tourism to the 0.02% of humans who can afford a few minutes of weightless low-Earth orbit, Branson and Bezos are locked in what many observers have called a high-dollar, high-stakes ego stroke. While Bezos—who until earlier this month was CEO of Amazon—may be the world’s wealthiest human and history’s first multi-centibillionaire, Branson on Sunday became the first of the two men to successfully rocket into space.

Around 600 people, including world’s second-richest person Elon Musk and numerous celebrities, have reserved $250,000 tickets for Virgin Galactic flights slated to start next year. According to the Wall Street Journal, the company has already collected $80 million in ticket sales and deposits.

Bezos plans to participate in a Blue Origin test flight this month. Over 150,000 people have signed a petition to keep him in space. It reads: “Billionaires should not exist…on Earth, or in space, but should they decide the latter, they should stay there.”

Branson, along with the crew and passengers of SpaceShipTwo and mothership WhiteKnightTwo, launched Sunday from Spaceport America, a facility in Sierra County, New Mexico paid for with over $200 million in mostly taxpayer money.

“Imagine a world where people of all ages, all backgrounds from anywhere, of any gender, or any ethnicity, have equal access to space,” Branson said following his flight. “And they will in turn, I think, inspire us back here on Earth.”

Responding to Branson’s space shot, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) tweeted, “Our social, political, and economic systems are built around the idea that tax breaks for billionaires buying leisurely space travel is more important than feeding, clothing, and housing all our children.”

Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich tweeted, “Nothing says tax the rich like a space race between billionaires.”

Robbie Silverman, senior advocacy manager at Oxfam America, said in a statement Monday that “Jeff Bezos’ 11-minute thrill ride to space is an insult to the millions of people here on planet Earth who struggle every day to feed their families and make ends meet. Many of them are the very Amazon workers who helped make Bezos the richest man in the world.”

“We can’t forget that our backwards and corrupt tax system has allowed the same person who pays next to no federal income tax to blow $7.5 billion on his own private aerospace company,” Silverman continued. “This is truly not rocket science. While hard working American families pay an average of 14% income tax each year, Bezos and the other billionaires in this obscene race to space should be required to pay their fair share.”

“The real innovation we need is a fair tax system that would allow desperately needed investments into well-paying jobs, adequate care for our children, and efforts to save the planet we all live on from the climate crisis,” Silverman added.

The progressives’ comments are similar to the reactions of Black leaders and artists to the Apollo moon landings half a century ago. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s close friend and adviser, led hundreds of poor Black farmers on a march to Cape Canaveral, Florida just before the Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969.

“We may go on from this day to Mars and Jupiter and even to the heavens beyond, but as long as racism, poverty, and hunger prevail on Earth, we as a civilized nation have failed,” Abernathy declared.

Soul poet Gil Scott-Heron was more blunt in his rebuke: “A rat done bit my sister Nell, with Whitey on the moon. Her face and arms began to swell, and Whitey’s on the moon. I can’t pay no doctor bill, but Whitey’s on the moon. Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still, while Whitey’s on the moon.”

(Photo: Virgin Galactic)

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