Jul 13, 2021 - Science

Billionaires are the new face of the final frontier

Illustration of planets hanging on a retail shopping rack with sale stickers placed haphazardly

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Billionaire entrepreneurs are fundamentally changing the public's relationship with space.

Why it matters: Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos are thrusting the industry into a new era of marketing for mass appeal, angling to make citizens into customers and changing the rhetoric around space in the process.

  • "I think this is a big moment because the public face of the space industry is no longer NASA and science and peaceful activities. It's now billionaires and companies trying to make money," the Secure World Foundation's Brian Weeden told me.
  • NASA is also supporting the efforts of private companies, looking to become more of a buyer of services in orbit while using its resources to push deeper into space with missions to the Moon and Mars.

Between the lines: The space industry is finding itself at the center of a cultural clash as billionaires make themselves front and center in spaceflight today.

  • A shift in rhetoric and perception around space — away from government-led exploration and toward a business realm — "comes at a time when there's a significant amount of backlash and criticism about hyper-capitalism and billionaires and inequality," Weeden said.
  • Criticism of billionaires could also bleed into American support for space exploration in the future, Weeden cautioned.

Driving the news: On Sunday, Virgin Galactic launched Branson to the edge of space aboard its space plane during a star-studded event that barely nodded to the risks of suborbital flight.

  • Instead of highlighting technical details, as most NASA-involved launches from Cape Canaveral do, the company's webcast served as a form of entertainment and advertising for a flight with Virgin Galactic.
  • The company tried to draw in potential customers with guest stars on the broadcast, including Stephen Colbert and Khalid.
  • Branson himself was onboard ostensibly to analyze the astronaut experience. But Kellie Gerardi, one of the webcast hosts, described it this way: "For this next generation of astronauts, we have the opportunity to optimize the experience and there’s just no one better to curate that experience than Richard Branson."

But, but, but: What the public gains in entertainment, it could lose in transparency.

  • Webcasts that focus more on technical details keep an audience up to date on what's happening in mission control or during flight.
  • By trading that technical information for entertainment, the public and press could lose access to important safety information necessary for potential customers to make an informed decision.
  • Plus, these companies aren't likely to be as beholden to the public as the government, meaning they may not freely share as much information as government actors do.

What to watch: Officials in other nations are taking note of the influence billionaires have on U.S. efforts in space.

  • "I hope that someday our billionaire oligarchs will begin to spend their money not on the next yachts and vanity fairs, but on the development of space technologies and knowledge about space," Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia's space agency, said on Twitter.
  • Virgin's show may also force other companies to take note and find new and engaging ways to bring a wide audience into their dreams of space travel while remaining entertaining.
  • It's not yet clear what Blue Origin will pull out for the webcast of its launch with Bezos on July 20, but if it's anything like past launch broadcasts for the company, it should include a mix of technical data and advertising.
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