Could a Jeff Bezos space flight unite America? You gotta be dreaming

Washington: The world’s richest man had to wait 57 years to leave Planet Earth. When the moment came it was over in a flash.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos travelled from remote Texas to the edge of space and back in a little over 10 minutes – less time than it takes to watch an episode of Media Watch from start to finish.

The journey was a brief, yet blissful moment for Bezos: the realisation of a dream from his early childhood.

Jeff Bezos exits Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule after it parachuted safely down.Credit:AP

Long before he transformed the way people buy everything from books to baby wipes, Bezos was a space nut. The Star Trek buff has described the Apollo 11 moon landing, which he watched on television as a five-year old, as a “seminal moment” in his life.

When he graduated from high school in Miami, he spoke of his desire for mankind to colonise outer space.

After defying gravity and making it back alive to Texas on Wednesday (AEST), Bezos was giddy with delight, declaring it the “best day ever”.

Even now he was thinking of the vision that captivated him as a teenager. Rather than simply make money hurtling wealthy tourists into the atmosphere, Bezos said his ultimate goal was to shift all of Earth’s polluting industry to outer space – an idea that may strike you as charmingly utopian or borderline crazy depending on your mood.

In the Cold War, the space race was a contest between two superpowers battling for global domination. Today it is a battle between rival businessmen. Or, to put it less kindly, an appendage swinging contest between egotistical billionaires: namely Bezos, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and Tesla chief executive Elon Musk.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson carries crew member Sirisha Bandla on his shoulders while celebrating their flight to space. Credit:AP

Bezos is a famously competitive guy (or rather anti-competitive, if you listen to the critics of his company’s ruthless business tactics.) So it would have given him no pleasure earlier this month when Branson beat him to the edge of space.

Bezos and his colleagues at Blue Origin, his aeronautic company, comforted themselves with the fact that they were flying further and without the need of a pilot.

In a pointed tweet, Blue Origin said its crew-members would not have “an asterisk next to their name” because they, unlike Branson’s team, were flying past the so-called Kármán line that is often used to delineate Earth from space.

(What did we say about appendage swinging?)

Musk will try to out-do his rivals in September when his company SpaceX attempts to send four people into orbit and back over three days.

Caught up in the excitement about Bezos’s successful flight, CNN host Jim Sciutto asked on Twitter: “Excuse my (mostly) incurable optimism, but could two successful private space launches in 9 days be something all Americans rally around together?”

But a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic couldn’t bring America together, and neither could a couple of space flights.

It’s true that, in Bezos’s accomplishment, some saw a victory of human ingenuity and the power of private enterprise. “This is a moment of American exceptionalism,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on behalf of President Joe Biden.

But others saw it as nothing more than an indulgent joy ride. What exactly, they asked, was so impressive about Bezos’s blink-and-you-miss-it flight when a group of government-funded astronauts made it to the moon and back five decades earlier?

Others saw a symbol of everything that’s wrong with modern capitalism, seizing the chance to score political points.

“Jeff Bezos’ 11-minute joyride cost over $2.5 MILLION a minute,” Pramila Jayapal, a progressive Democratic congresswoman, said on Twitter. “Yes, it’s time to tax the rich.”

Bezos, high on adrenaline, didn’t help himself when he said after the flight: “I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer, ’cause you guys paid for all this.”

After all, an Amazon worker making the minimum wage stacking pallets in a warehouse may or may not see it as their mission in life to fund Bezos’s boyhood fantasies.

“Jeff Bezos forgot to thank all the hardworking Americans who actually paid taxes to keep this country running while he and Amazon paid nothing,” Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren said, repeating her calls for wealth tax on billionaires like Bezos.

More unifying was the praise for fellow crew-member 82-year old Wully Funk. As a pioneering young female aviator at NASA in the 1960s, Funk was denied the chance to go to space; now she holds the record as the oldest person to leave Earth.

Jeff Bezos with Wally Funk, who at 82 became the oldest person to launch into space.Credit:AP

One suspects the criticism won’t bother Bezos much anyway. Before now he could say he revolutionised online commerce. He could say he restored The Washington Post to its former glory. Now he has added another credential to his resume: bona fide astronaut.

Even if progressives in the US Congress eventually pry away some of his fortune, they can never take that away from him.

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