Backlash over Bezos spaceflight sparks debate about equity in the cosmos


(WASHINGTON) — When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos took what some viewed as a joyride to the edge of space earlier this week and then thanked the employees of his e-commerce empire for paying for it, the backlash against the richest man in the world was swift.

The anguish left behind from an economic shock induced by a global pandemic compounded animosity towards Bezos, whose fortune — now topping $200 billion — multiplied during the crisis. As millions of Americans struggled to pay rent, reports emerged that he had avoided paying income taxes. One lawmaker blasted his spaceflight on Twitter as “a monument to tax evasion and inequality.” Tens of thousands signed a petition calling for Bezos not to return.

Bezos has argued his mission is “not about escaping earth” but building a “road to space” for the benefit of future generations. “We need to do that to solve the problems here on Earth,” he said after the launch, which was also lauded for sending pioneering female pilot Wally Funk into space after her astronaut dreams were deferred in the ’60s because she is a woman.

The Amazon chairman’s trip came just nine days after a similar suborbital jaunt from fellow billionaire Richard Branson, which seemed to cement the idea that spacefaring — once revered by many as the pinnacle of human prowess and American ingenuity — was just another playground for the ultra-wealthy and a reminder of the deep-rooted inequities that persist down on Earth.

But intrigue in what lies beyond our planet is indiscriminate, despite the vast wealth and racial disparities that have plagued space programs for decades. As a new commercial space industry officially launches with Bezos’ and Branson’s spaceflights, here is what some experts say may be left behind if equity in the cosmos is not considered.

‘I represented a lot of hope’: Space exploration ‘for the people’

First-generation Mexican American Jose Hernandez grew up toiling alongside his migrant farmworker parents from a young age but, like Bezos, had lifelong dreams of visiting outer space.

“When I was 10-years-old, I was lucky enough to watch the very last Apollo mission on our black-and-white TV console with rabbit ear antennas,” he told ABC News, recalling how he clung to the antennas “for dear life, trying to improve reception.”

As he watched NASA’s Gene Cernan step on the surface of the moon, Hernandez said he felt a “calling.” He decided right then that he wanted to become an astronaut, saying, “Lucky enough, my parents were very supportive.” He was rejected by NASA eleven times before on the 12th attempt, he was selected to be a part of the space agency’s 19th class of astronauts.

In 2009, he launched aboard the second-to-last Space Shuttle mission and spent 14 days in orbit on the International Space Station. He sent the first Spanish-language tweet from the ISS.

Upon arriving back to Earth, Hernandez said he was surprised to find out he had become a hero in his community and one of the most-requested astronauts for speaking engagements at the time.

“The response, especially from the Hispanic community and Hispanic news media, was tremendous,” he said. “I quickly realized that I, overnight, became a role model to a lot of kids.”

Hernandez said he tried to embrace this role, and showed up at every event and school that he could, urging students of color to quite literally reach for the stars.

“I represented a lot of hope for a lot of people because it’s one thing seeing an astronaut, it’s another seeing someone that looks like you, that talks like you, that came from the same socio-economic background you’re from,” he said. “And yet, you see them with the flight suit. And so then they begin to visualize themselves in that flight suit.”

“That’s what my dad did when he empowered me, he said, ‘I believe in you,'” Hernandez added. “That’s what I tried to do with these kids, I said look at my story, I could trade poor stories with the rest of you, and I was able to make it and so can you.”

Kate Howell, of the space exploration nonprofit Planetary Society, told ABC News that agencies like NASA sending humans on scientific and exploratory missions is “closest that we’re going to get to space travel being for the people.”

“If an astronauts sets foot on Mars, for example, that’s kind of being done on behalf of all humankind,” she said. “It’s not just about that individual astronaut’s experience, they’re there on a mission to learn things, to discover things.”

Howell said she thinks it is important to distinguish “space tourism” from “space science and exploration.”

While Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are selling tickets for the first space tourists, both companies have expressed interest in assisting space agencies on science missions as well.

“A lot of people lump sort of all things space into the same category, or see this tourism industry as sort of the evolution of humanity’s activities in space, but I really see them as separate endeavors,” she said. “Space tourism, I think the criticisms that are being levied against that industry are fair, but humanity is still going to continue to explore space in scientific ways that do benefit everybody.”

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Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are some of the well-known names in the budding commercial space industry, but a slew of smaller firms are also emerging. In 2020, investors poured almost $9 billion into private space companies, according to a report earlier this year from consulting firm McKinsey.

While Howell says she doesn’t see a near future where ordinary people who wants to experience space can easily go due to its cost — despite the promises of democratizing space from Bezos and Branson — others are attempting to find a way.

In what is being dubbed “the World’s first sponsored Citizen Astronaut Program,” the nonprofit Space for Humanity is inviting all to apply for its “Humanity-1” program.

“What we’re working to do is sponsor people from all over the world to go to space, so they can go and see and experience our planet as a planet floating in the universe,” Rachel Lyons, the group’s executive, told ABC News.

The initiative foots the bill for the spaceflight ticket, astronaut training, travel and accommodations for those it sends to space.

“When astronauts go to space and they see and experience our planet, they come back down very often transformed human beings — with a new care for what’s happening on our planet,” she said, referring to what researchers dub the “Overview Effect.”

“Basically, we will be covering people to go and have this overview effect experience so they can come back down and then be like seeds of people around the world to go and share this perspective far and wide, because we believe that this is a perspective that we need to take on collectively in order to solve these challenges that we now face,” Lyons said.

Humanity-1 participants will launch when the technology is ready via whatever flight provider that may be, she added, such as buying tickets from Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin.

“Space is not about a specific gender or specific race,” Lyons said. “It’s important to us to have everyone feel included in it, as everyone feel like a stakeholder in it.”

The Planetary Society’s Howell added that in the current state of the space tourism industry, where tickets have sold for millions of dollars, “You are going to see the racial disparities of wealth play into that.”

“Most people who are going to be able to afford to go on these trips into space for fun, are going to be the people who have benefited from racial privilege,” Howell said.

‘Whitey on the moon’

Chris Smalls, an activist and former Amazon fulfillment center worker who was fired under contentious circumstances last March, said he was handing out water bottles to his former colleagues at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York, when Bezos was taking his trip to space. Smalls has spent the past year protesting pandemic working conditions at Amazon warehouses, and is currently organizing a union drive at the same facility where he used to work.

Smalls said Bezos’ thanking Amazon employees and customers for funding his space jaunt was “a slap in the face” to workers.

“We take it as disrespect, and all the money he was donating, giving out, and the fact that I’m outside of his facility in 90-degree weather handing out waters … we honestly don’t even care about it,” Smalls said.

Smalls said that he did not even watch the live event, saying, “I’m in the middle of a union drive right now.”

“We’re focused on our mission, and our mission is to get organized to unionize and protect ourselves,” he said.

Smalls, who is Black, called the billionaire space race “whitewashed.”

Racial disparities in all aspects of the space sector have persisted since its inception. As the nation rushed to put a man on the moon during the original U.S.-Soviet space race in the ’60s, Black Americans were still fighting for equal freedoms back on Earth with the simultaneous eruption of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated just one year before the moon landing.

The 1970 spoken word poem “Whitey on the Moon” by Gil Scott-Heron became a rallying cry criticizing government spending on the space program while basic needs for Black Americans were left unmet. “I can’t pay no doctor bill, but Whitey’s on the Moon,” the poem — which started trending on social media soon after Bezos took flight — states.

“That’s always been an issue, and it’s going to continue to be an issue until we fix these root causes,” Smalls said of the racial disparities in space.

Smalls says this is why his focus remains on unionizing Amazon, with the goal of providing better wages for all, and addressing the “massive wealth inequality at play” in the commercial space race.

“If we fixed the root causes, instead of everything trickling down you will see a trickle up, and hopefully that will also encourage more African Americans to explore options in space,” he said. “We should also have the option to join when we want to.”

‘Every world leader should take a trip’

Hernandez said he sees the commercial space race as ultimately a positive, bringing high-paying engineering jobs to the U.S. and carrying potential spin-off technological developments could benefit everyone on earth. He also says every dollar spent on space exploration by a private company is “one dollar less the taxpayer pays to NASA to explore space.”

“We now have three companies that that can give access to humans into space without being involved with NASA for the first time,” Hernandez said. “I think that that is a great achievement.”

What he would like to see is more efforts to include diverse backgrounds at the top levels of management in these emerging commercial space firms, and in the cosmos. He called on Bezos, Branson and SpaceX’s Elon Musk to “in each flight, designate one seat to go so that it could fulfill a purpose.” This could be as simple as sending artists, poets, regular people who meet the general physical requirements and “more than just geeky engineers” to experience space.

Virgin Galactic states on its website that its mission is to “open space to everybody” and has emphasized that its future astronauts come from “diverse backgrounds” but are united by “a shared passion for the democratization of space travel.” Still, its tickets cost some $250,000. Branson has also said he hopes their work encourages and inspires the future generation.

“I really hope that there will be millions of kids all over the world who will be captivated and inspired about the possibility of them going to space one day,” he stated.

Blue Origin has launched a charitable foundation, Club for the Future, which distributed $1 million grants to 19 space-based charities from the funds raised through the sale of Blue Origin’s first commercial ticket to space. Club for the Future has the goal of inspiring young people to pursue careers in STEM fields and help invent the future of life in space.

Like many astronauts have reported, Hernandez said seeing the “the sun’s rays hit the Earth’s atmosphere, clearly delineated from space” scared and awed him — and made him appreciate the planet with a new urgency.

In addition, the farmworker-turned-astronaut also said that he was hit with an inexplicable awe almost immediately after arriving in space, as he flew over North America and saw the continent out his window.

“What struck me in awe is that you can see Canada, the U.S., and Mexico, but you can’t see where Canada ended and the U.S. began, you can’t see where the U.S. ended and Mexico began,” he said. “I said, ‘Wow, borders are human-made concepts designed to separate us and how sad, because from this perspective, we’re just one down there.'”

“Now that we have this space tourism industry going, I think it should be a requirement that every world leader take a trip so they can see what I saw,” he said. “And I’ll guarantee you that our world would be a much better place than it is today.”

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