The world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, and business magnate Richard Branson each took off to outer space in rockets developed by their own aerospace companies this July. In addition, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is set to launch its first tourist mission later this year. 

All of these were done as a move to make space travel available not just to astronauts but also to tourists who can afford exorbitant prices for tickets. 

Blue Origin had auctioned a spare ticket to Bezos’ supersonic joyride for over $28 million, while Branson’s Virgin Galactic has already offered seats for early 2022 worth over $200,000 each. An early estimate for Musk’s space expeditions was at $55 million per seat.

Altruism or vanity?

But what are the real motivations behind these space flights?

Branson stated in a press conference after his successful flight that they aimed to make space travel “more accessible to all,” welcoming the “dawn of a new space age.” But aside from tourism, these billionaires say that they have more grandiose hopes for space travel.

Bezos believes that Blue Origin’s missions will serve as a bridge to his vision where heavy and polluting industries such as energy production are moved out of Earth and toward extraterrestrial bodies. For instance, commercial operations such as mining water ice for fuel can be done on the moon.

He also previously said that he envisions millions of people working and living in massive space stations in the future. 

Quite similarly, Musk’s SpaceX is already building a spacecraft of which he intends to transport the first human settlement to Mars. On the other hand, Branson hopes to use his technology for hypersonic point-to-point travel that will shuttle passengers across the world much faster than traditional flying.

Critics weigh in – now what?

However, these visions met with more backlash than support. Critics point out how billionaires tend to evade taxes only to pursue ambitions with their hoarded wealth. These space adventures reportedly do very little to confront any of society’s problems, contrary to their altruistic declarations.

Political cartoonists highlighted how Bezos’ rockets which he imagines will save the planet are made with thousands of polluting trucks. 

The Atlantic rapped on Bezos and Branson, who “chose a terrible time to leave Earth” by pursuing vanity projects in the middle of a climate crisis in the United States plus a global pandemic. Writer Shannon Stirone commented that while everyone would want to take a break from the planet’s crises, “the billionaires are virtually the only ones who are able to leave.”

These billionaires believe that their long-term goals are investments for the future of humanity. But since these long-term goals are highly unlikely to be seen by anyone alive soon enough, critics suggest they only distance themselves from the pressing issues of humanity that are more urgent than space exploration.