On the morning of Oct. 12, William Shatner, best known for his role as the Star Trek franchise’s original Captain Kirk, will take a seat atop the New Shepard suborbital launch vehicle, built by Blue Origin, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ space concern.
From a West Texas launchpad, he will ascend approximately 63 miles, before the passenger capsule will separate from the rocket and both will return home.
Mr. Shatner’s itinerary includes four minutes floating in microgravity. “Yes, it’s true; I’m going to be a ‘rocket man!’” Mr. Shatner wrote on Twitter on Monday. “I’ve heard about space for a long time now,” he quipped in a statement released by Blue Origin. “I’m taking the opportunity to see it for myself. What a miracle.”
Weather permitting, the man behind one of the most recognizable space-faring characters in science fiction history will become the oldest person ever to float there. In doing so, he’ll be making a cameo in a different sort of media franchise, one which, despite its rich premise and lavish funding, is still trying to decide on its tone, stakes and overall narrative direction. The billionaire space race is happening, whether we choose to pay attention or not. Of course, the billionaires would prefer that we did.
Your feelings about the billionaire space race aren’t likely to stray far from your gut feeling about those three words in that particular order.
At one end: These are some of the greatest entrepreneurs of their generations meeting an even greater challenge, directing their considerable wealth and talents to the advancement of the human race. At the other: Some of Earth’s most prolific pillagers are burning ill-gotten gains as fuel to fulfill their boyhood fantasies while the planet collapses beneath them.
The vast majority of regular people may not have strong feelings about the billionaires going to space, judging what’s happening as perhaps cool, strange, fascinating, either broadly hopeful or unnecessary, but, most of all, as currently somewhat peripheral to their lives. A July poll conducted by the public relations professor Joseph Cabosky, with The Harris Group, found, in Mr. Cabosky’s summary, that “people were supportive of space travel and the technological developments that come from it. Yet, respondents also viewed these events as ego trips generally limited to rich people.”
The association of space with famous billionaires also flattens out differences between the new space ventures and the people who run them. SpaceX is a mature business, the largest launch provider and commercial satellite operator in the world, a major NASA contractor which can also claim dozens of major aerospace breakthroughs as its own, and a significant source of its founder’s wealth. Blue Origin, whose founder trades places with SpaceX’s as the richest person in the world, is ambitious but clearly playing catch-up, while Richard Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, and whose fortune is comparatively minuscule, has focused on suborbital space tourism and seems, well, happy to be included.
The original space race was different. A direct extension of an arms and propaganda race between two competing superpowers — each representing one of the century’s defining ideologies, under the specter of annihilation — the space race of the 1950s and ’60s was inseparable from the most salient stories of its time.
Its firsts were clear and unconditional, like summited peaks: first satellite in orbit; first animal; first human; the moon. If you’re old enough to have been able to form memories in 1957, there’s a good chance you remember looking for Sputnik as it crossed the night sky. An estimated 94 percent of TV-owning Americans and hundreds of millions of people around the globe tuned in to watch Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969.
The billionaire space race has been able to tap into the nostalgia and yearning for space age ideals of exploration and daring, but has done so under the auspices of, basically, a set of competing marketing campaigns fighting to drown each other out.
Elon Musk, the rare sort of billionaire who has multiple fandoms, has proved an able promoter for SpaceX, and some of its launches have made for tense international viewing events and memorable spectacles. (Somewhere out there, you may remember, a Tesla with a mannequin is orbiting the sun.)
In September, the company sent a civilian crew into orbit, asserting SpaceX’s status as the clear current leader in both technological and public relations terms. (The civilians were selected in collaboration with a military contractor and payments processing billionaire through a hybrid sweepstakes/children’s hospital fund-raiser/Shark-Tank-style process that was filmed for a Netflix docu-series.)
Mr. Branson and Mr. Bezos have made the billionaire space race more literal and personal, and often speak in dreamier language. Mr. Branson launched first, in July, and Mr. Bezos followed days later. Speaking “to all the kids down there” from the edge of space, Mr. Branson said, “if we can do this, just imagine what you can do.”
Mr. Bezos, after landing, said simply, “Best day ever!”
In front of assembled press, he made an attempt to convey a sense of collectivity, or at least humility. “I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all this,” he said. He was clearly moved, and his performance was earnest, but it also resulted in a backlash that, from perhaps any other perspective in the world, would have been easy to anticipate. “Amazon workers don’t need Bezos to thank them. They need him to stop union busting — and pay them what they deserve,” wrote the former secretary of labor Robert Reich on Twitter.
In all of these excursions, there has been an overt or implicit message: That the billionaire space is about opening up spaceflight — or, sometimes, “tourism” — to wider groups of people. You can reserve tickets to space already, and a few people have now been able to use them.
The techno-optimism of that idea — that some of today’s toys for the wealthy will one day be taken for granted by millions — is not without precedent. But it’s also recognizably a product pitch as well as an insistent attempt to assure the public that things aren’t just what they look like today, which is the ultrarich selling flights to space to the slightly less rich. Appeals that the private space industry of the United States is the country’s best hedge against growing space programs in other countries double, even for those who find them persuasive, as sour reminders of general national institutional decline.
In these early stages, the billionaires’ pitches about their roles in space are still constantly adjusting, never quite aligning even when they overlap. Sometimes they’re running companies developing lines of business. Sometimes they’re enjoying some jocular teasing with a few of their peers. Their messaging pulls in history and tropes, science and fiction, nostalgia and wild speculation. Space is a refuge, a frontier, or an untapped market; Earth must be saved, or escaped, or writ large across the cosmos.
In a conference last year, Mr. Musk summarized one of his longtime pitches: “If there’s something terrible that happens on Earth, either made by humans or natural, we want to have, like, life insurance for life as a whole. Then, there’s the kind of excitement and adventure.”
After returning to the surface of the planet in July, Mr. Bezos said in an interview that it was his hope to “move all heavy industry and all polluting industry off of Earth and operate it in space.” Eventually, he has argued, “we could have a trillion humans in the solar system and it still wouldn’t be crowded” — a vision that would include, he suggested, “a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts.”
One could imagine a head of state speaking in such terms — and with the presumption of being able to speak for the public — as many have, albeit steadily less persuasively since John F. Kennedy talked about doing things because they are hard. (President Obama: “Getting to Mars will require continued cooperation between government and private innovators.” President Trump: “I am updating my budget to include an additional $1.6 billion so that we can return to Space in a BIG WAY!”)
But Mr. Musk, Mr. Branson and Mr. Bezos are first and foremost understood as businesspeople, and they are, in fact, running businesses. The stories of their companies are told in speeches and interviews, sure, but also through marketing and PR, in presentations to investors, appeals to regulators, in responses to complaints and concerns raised by employees, in multiplying and crisscrossing lawsuits, and, occasionally, on Twitter, where planetary banalities intrude constantly.
Mr. Bezos’ articulated dreams of infinite growth in space are brought back to Earth, fairly or not, by the resemblance they bear to the ambitions he has described and achieved here, and what they have meant for the rest of us in practice. When Blue Origin subtweets Mr. Branson by noting, just ahead Mr. Branson’s successful flight, that, actually, “space begins 100 km up at the internationally recognized Kármán line,” and that none of their astronauts will “have an asterisk next to their name” — or when Mr. Musk says Mr. Bezos should “put more of his energy into getting to orbit than lawsuits,” in reference to a squabble over a NASA contract for a lunar lander — it’s hard not to be reminded how much they’ve thrived and profited within the Earthly morass from which they claim they will one day free us.
The story of the new space race will change with its progress, adjusting as it encounters or breaks through new limits. Indeed, these firms are charting humankind’s path back into space, and even insightful critics have tended and will continue to underestimate their straightforward capabilities. But stories do matter. NASA’s slide from the public consciousness can be blamed on all sorts of things, but its beginning coincides with its loss of a clearly communicable goal, around the time the U.S. made its last U-turn at the moon, in 1972. (It’s also worth emphasizing that the original space race owes its ability to inspire a sense of shared ownership and risk not just to a spirit of collective inquiry and exploration, but to rank nationalism and the terror of war. Conquering space: possibly fraught!)
This is not lost on the new space barons, who grew up and now do business in the shadow of our official and unofficial space mythologies. Blue Origin, for its part, is emphasizing continuity and stewardship, naming its ships after NASA astronauts and giving one of its first tickets to space to the 82-year-old Wally Funk, whose efforts to get to become one of the first women to go to space had been thwarted by the agency. (And who had purchased and not yet been able to redeem a $200,000 ticket with Mr. Branson’s Virgin in 2010.)
Still, for now, the story of the billionaire space race looks an awful lot like just that — billionaires racing each other to space. Perhaps the most pervasive suspicion about the new space barons is that, whatever else they’re up to, and wherever this goes, this whole exercise is, at its core, between them: It’s about their childhood dreams, their egos, their legacies, their comparative fortunes. Our understanding of the future they describe depends, like our lives on Earth, on what little we can understand about the motivations of a few people.
This is also, of course, the realm of phallus-shaped rocket jokes and Dr. Evil memes and why not? It’s low-orbiting fruit. I will enjoy watching Captain Kirk, a character written well before I was born and with whom I grew up, touch the edge of space, appreciating the gentle ironies of the U.S.S. Enterprise’s hard-charging captain getting same-day-shipped a few thousand yards into space by the Amazon guy. I suspect plenty of people who haven’t been paying attention to what that Amazon guy has been up to in space will get a kick out of this, too.
Mr. Bezos has talked about his Star Trek fandom (and of going to space) for longer than he’s been a public figure. (“The whole idea is to preserve the Earth,” he said, in a speech as high school valedictorian, leaving it as “a huge national park.”) He purchased and installed an eight foot filming model of the USS Enterprisein the Blue Origin office lobby, and appeared as an alien Starfleet official in 2016’s “Star Trek Beyond.”
Blue Origin told The New York Times that Mr. Shatner would be flying “as our guest” — meaning he didn’t pay for his ticket. Maybe Mr. Bezos wants to help humanity to boldly go where no man has before, together. Maybe he just thinks this is all so, so cool. In the billionaire space race, it’s none of our business. It’s theirs.