Billionaires slipped the surly bonds of Earth, but couldn’t escape its problems | Friday Coffee

If Bezos and co. wanted to “[touch] the face of God,” they could have kept themselves and their billions on solid ground, and devoted it to Her creation on Earth.

July 23, 2021 7:22 am

VAN HORN, TEXAS – JULY 20: Blue Origin’s New Shepard crew (L-R) Oliver Daemen (hidden), Mark Bezos, Jeff Bezos, and Wally Funk arrive for a press conference after flying into space in the Blue Origin New Shepard rocket on July 20, 2021 in Van Horn, Texas. Mr. Bezos and the crew were the first human spaceflight for the company. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

(*This column was updated at 2:17 p.m. on Friday, 7/23/21 to remove a reference to Elon Musk as a passenger on Branson’s flight.)

Billionaire space cowboys Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have rightfully been taking some flack for sub-orbital jaunts earlier this month that garnered plenty of headlines but little in the way of actual scientific advancement, apart from trying to normalize the idea of routine spaceflight for other, exceptionally rich people.

With all the power of the rockets that propelled them and their titanic egos into the wild blue yonder, social media went incandescent with criticism, arguing persuasively that Bezos and Branson could have used their money to address a sprawling multitude of problems, from climate change to income inequality, back here on Earth.

“Jeff Bezos is going into space tomorrow. Yesterday, on earth, I saw a man search for food in a trash can,” the critic Charles Preston observed on Twitter.

Warren Gunnels, a top aide to U.S. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.piled on, tartly noting that “class warfare is Jeff BezosElon Musk and Richard Branson becoming $250 billion richer during the pandemic, paying a lower tax rate than a nurse and racing to outer space while the planet burns and millions go without healthcare, housing and food.”

Others wryly noted that should Bezos, the former Amazon chief, need to relieve himself while rocketing through the skies, he could always use the same plastic bottles that his drivers have said they use as they try to meet punishing delivery schedules.

Bezos, at least, had the presence of mind to observe that his critics were onto something, conceding that they were “largely right,” CNBC and other outlets reported.

“We have to do both,” he said. “We have lots of problems here and now on Earth and we need to work on those and we also need to look to the future, we’ve always done that as a species and as a civilization. We have to do both.”

On one level, Bezos was right. There always has been a fundamental tension between humankind’s interstellar ambitions, which tend to be massively expensive, and the feeling that money could be better used to ameliorate more terrestrial concerns.

“I am not opposed to climbing mountains because they’re there, or pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but I would urge the Trump Administration to consider putting its scientific efforts into problems closer to home (climate change? Or, say, clean water in Flint?) before our plan to colonize the moon turns into a plan to escape to it.” Ana Marie Cox wrote in 2018 as the former president briefly floated the idea of lunar colonization before the Earth was plunged into the worst public health crisis in a century.

There is undoubtedly a case to be made for the utility of spaceflight of advancing the cause of human knowledge. The digital flight controls pioneered by the Apollo program is “now integral to airliners and is even found in most cars,” according to NASA, which, admittedly, has something to gain by touting the earthbound benefits of space flight.

Writing in Foreign Policy in 2019Greg Autry reminded readers of the now legendary image of the Earth captured by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders in 1968: A big, blue marble looking alone and so very vulnerable in the vast void of space.  That photo, dubbed “Earthrise,” has inspired ever since.

Earthrise, the photo by NASA astronaut William Anders (Image via NASA).

“Today conservationists and other critics are more likely to see space programs as militaristic splurges that squander billions of dollars better applied to solving problems on Earth,” Autry wrote. “These well-meaning complaints are misguided, however. Earth’s problems—most urgently, climate change—can be solved only from space. That’s where the tools and data already being used to tackle these issues were forged and where the solutions of the future will be too.”

Knowledge — and money — deployed in the service of the greater good is almost always welcome. And I remain as much an evangelist for the exploration of interstellar space as anyone else. I agree with the premise that there is a mandate to explore — while gleaning the knowledge that comes along with it.

But in the case of the billionaire space race, there was almost no sense that this was, to paraphrase Neil Armstrongone giant step for humankind.

Rather, it was about puffing the egos of spectacularly wealthy men, who despite all the hoopla, never made it that far into space in any event, with negligible scientific benefit.

Bezos and Branson, slipped the surly bonds of earth, as the poet John Gillespie Magee once wrote. But they returned to a planet just as riven by inequality, war, a still raging pandemic, and the crisis of climate change.

I’d suggest that if they were looking, as Magee also wrote, to “[touch] the face of God,” they could have kept themselves  — and their billions — on solid ground, and devoted it to Her creation on Earth.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.

In testimony before a state House panel on Thursday, experts and advocates called for ‘transparency’ and ‘clarity’ in the decennial redrawing of Pennsylvania’s congressional maps, Cassie Miller reports.

After telling constituents to ‘get over it,’ a GOP senator has proposed changing Pennsylvania’s fireworks lawMarley Parish reports.

A Democratic state lawmaker from suburban Philadelphia is facing misdemeanor charges of theft for allegedly misusing campaign funds and says she’ll resign immediately, Parish also reports.

Decades after his death, a Hall of Famer from Pittsburgh who played in the Negro Leagues is getting a long-overdue memorial, our partners at Pittsburgh City Paper report.

State and local officials disbursed $1.5 billion in rental assistance during June — more than during the entire previous five months—to help households falling behind on rent and utilities, according to U.S. Treasury data released Wednesday. Capital-Star Washington Reporter Laura Olson has the details.

U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-1st District, was one of about two-dozen Republicans who voted with Democrats to pass a bill regulating ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water, Capital-Star Washington Reporter Ariana Figueroa and I write.

On our Commentary Page this morning, opinion regular Lloyd Sheaffer says Republicans in Harrisburg need to give up their critical race theory crusade. And scientists understood the physics of climate change in the 1800s, thanks to a woman named Eunice Foote, a Rice University expert explains.

En la Estrella-Capital: Los esfuerzos de la facultad de Pitt para sindicalizarse continúan con las próximas elecciones para unirse a United Steelworkers. Y Philly ve un ‘pequeño pero real aumento’ en los casos de COVID-19, dice el doctor principal de la ciudad.

(Image via

Local school board meetings are turning tense with debates over masks and critical race theory, the Inquirer reports.

Gov. Tom Wolf has clarified his position on Voter ID, saying he’s still against anything that would suppress the vote, the Associated Press reports (via TribLive).

The state reported 561 new COVID-19 infections on Thursday, while its rolling average of new cases continued to increase, PennLive reports.

Faculty, staff, and students in the Allentown schools will have to wear masks if they’re not vaccinated, the Morning Call reports.

Some voters in York County say they want local leaders to participate in a GOP-backed sham audit of 2020 election results, the York Daily Record reports.

Incumbent prosecutor Sam Sanguedolce is the lone applicant for the Luzerne County Republican Party’s pick for district attorney in the Nov. 2 election. Democrats are still looking for a candidate, the Citizens’ Voice reports (paywall).

Advocates and community leaders in Philadelphia have given Mayor Jim Kenney a deadline to do something about gun violenceWHYY-FM reports.

The Department of Justice won’t investigate how the state handled nursing homes during the pandemic, the Associated Press reports (via WITF-FM).

City & State PA runs down the past week’s winners and losers in state politics.

Three states are moving ahead with plans for a public option on health reports.

NYMag’s Intelligencer asks readers to consider what would have happened if the 9/11 commission had been stocked with allies of the hijackers.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition)
Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, hosts a sporting clays shooting extravaganza at Seven Springs Mountain Resort. Admission runs $250 to $5,000.

Gov. Tom Wolf has no public schedule today.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept
Best wishes go out this morning to Anna Orso, of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who celebrates today, as well as reader Jack Scanlon, of Lancaster, Pa. Best wishes go out in advance to reader Jill Linta, of Dauphin County, who celebrates on Saturday. Congratulations all around.

Heavy Rotation
Here’s one from Jungle to get your weekend rolling. It’s the compulsively danceable ‘Keep Moving.’

Friday’s Gratuitous Soccer Link
Chelsea, of England’s Women’s Soccer League will open it title-defending season against Arsenal before going on to face Manchester United in a tough start, the Guardian reports.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.