Billionaires and Space — The Right Race (op-ed)

Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin Galactic, will launch on the company's first fully crewed spaceflight on the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity from Spaceport America, New Mexico on July 11, 2021.
Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin Galactic, will launch on the company's first fully crewed spaceflight on the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity from Spaceport America, New Mexico on July 11, 2021. (Image credit: Virgin Galactic)

As the billionaire space race heats up, it's easy to get the wrong message. Having no understanding of how we got to this point, the media often frame it as an elite group of rich boys trying to literally one-up each other as they thrust themselves into the sky.

They are. But what is missing from these reports, editorials, and opinions is any understanding of what is really happening, why it is happening, and where it may lead us — all of us — not just them.

For 40 years, a group of space revolutionaries have been fighting to get America and the world to exactly this point. To us this is a victory. What those from the outside see as a group of poster children for the evils of the rich, we see as people enabling a huge breakthrough to create a better future for everyone on the planet. What some characterize as the in your face waste of money better spent on their own versions of public service, we see as a significant investment in the one area of human endeavor that has the possibility of helping solve a host of human problems, ranging from the intangibles of inspiration to the very real effects of human industry on the Earth.

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Yes, I do get that there are massively over-bloated egos involved here. I also get that in their businesses, some of these men (and yes, they are unfortunately all men — for now) do not apply the correct levels of compassion, fairness, and generosity to those who helped them earn the money they are spending on space projects.  I also conceded they might not be the personal role models one might wish to see leading such important work. I get it. I know or have met them all. And they exhibit the common flaws of almost all who have created massive wealth. They are socially awkward, impatient, and, thanks to the circles of sycophants and managers around them, at times out of touch with the realities of ordinary life.

Yet we live in a society that glorifies money and fame, one in which utterly useless influencers milk the masses for money, and cash cows like the Kardashians become idols.  We forgive the scandals of stars, and worship multi-millionaire athletes for no other reason than their fabulousness and physical prowess. I find it a bit ludicrous in such a society, where the quest for power and money is The defining paradigm, that when a few of the most successful among us put some of their hard-earned wealth into projects to break us out into a new level of being, they become targeted as icons of evil.

Related: Meet the crew launching on Virgin Galactic's 1st fully crewed flight

Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin staff celebrate the successful landing of a New Shepard rocket. (Image credit: Blue Origin)

Let's be very clear. Whatever mechanism these folks use to launch themselves or their machines into space, whoever they may be in their personal lives, these people are trying to do something good for humanity and the planet. They are investing in a better future. They are developing systems and technologies to break us out of the cage of gravity and allow us to open this little backwater of a planet to the rest of the universe.

While, for obvious reasons, the word itself is a bit hard for those in the space field to use, they are making the ultimate "impact" investment. They are investing billions in opening a railroad to space we will all be able to travel — billions they could have used to buy sports teams, palaces, and pet politicians. Instead, they are putting the future where their mouths are.

If they succeed, we will be able to shift what has been a civilization-long attack on the Earth's resources to support our growing society into the emergence of a new space economy that can attack the problems of global warming. By investing the profits made selling us media, cars, and the cornucopia of everything else they deliver to our doors, we get the chance to reverse the rape of our Mother World.  Instead of ripping the metals and minerals we use in our materialistic society out of her sacred soil, we can harvest them from the dead rocks of space. And as we get out there ourselves, as we have seen in almost every human-to-human interaction in space, they can help us model new ways of being, new ways to be together, and new ways to appreciate each other. Also, by simply looking back down and experiencing the Overview Effect, being up there creates new ways of thinking about our delicate and beautiful planet down here.

When I speak to reporters and groups, I also like to make one badly misunderstood yet important point about Elon, Jeff and Richard, who are pouring their money into opening the Frontier.

At least when it comes to them, these billionaires are not doing space to make money. They made their money to do space.

Look at their life history. These are not the robber barons of the 1800s. Jeff Bezos gave a high school commencement speech where he talked of settling space. Elon Musk tried to send a symbolic living sample of Earth life to Mars with his fortune from eBay buying PayPal. And Richard Branson's ongoing social and environmental work is well known. They are Apollo's children. Raised on images of humans both ready to destroy the Earth and yet exploring the cosmos, who chose to use their massive fortunes to free us to try new ways of living together in new societies out there, and fire the dreams of the next generation, rather than conquer others and fill the sky with the smoke of industry.

As to those who might buy tickets to take rides to space, it is and has always been true that the spending of the rich as early technology adopters often subsidizes the development of things that make all of our lives better. For example, there's that massive flat screen on your wall, which now costs less than the first tiny TVs only the rich could once afford. Or consider your ability to fly anywhere, once only available to the wealthy "Jet Set." Or, more directly, that Tesla in a suburban driveway. Or a thousand other things we now take for granted.

In this case, the tech is that of spaceflight, the improvement is making it cheap and affordable, and the result will be access to the rest of the universe — for the rest of us.

Yes, we have a society warped by its design to drive wealth upwards to a tiny percent of our population. Yes, those who sit at such pinnacles of power need to do a much better job sharing their bounty — preferably with the employees who made them rich. Yes, watching the playing out of a battle of egos to see whose rocket ship is bigger, can go further, and stay up longer is as ridiculous at times as most of the other things that a bunch of male nerds often do. And yes, the society that produces such focused financial power needs to be reformed.

Virgin Galactic's Carrier Aircraft VMS Eve and VSS Unity take off on a test flight. (Image credit: Virgin Galactic)

I get it. In their Earthly works, they need to be more kind, more friendly, pay their people more, and generally be better humans.

But I ask you to get this. The last space race was between nations that wanted to blow each other up and take the planet with them. Even now, there is another, much more ominous space race shaping up between the world's democracies and dictatorships like China and Russia to control the moon and the rest of the solar system. I ask you to get that we, the taxpayers, collectively invest trillions in races to develop weapons of death and destruction that can fly further and blow up more stuff. And look in the mirror and get that in the name of our own egos, we dump billions into bigger, badder, gas-guzzling greenhouse growing metal boxes on wheels, and ever bigger billboard-like boxes than we could ever need to live in - just because we have the money. We are human. So are they.

These visionary billionaires could dissolve their fortunes and hand each of us a few dollars that would quickly vanish into the sea of spending we all do every day to no noticeable effect. Why not let them put that money into doing the heavy lifting that can help build a future that might well give us the tools to save us all? That is an inspiration to us all, and offers the possibility to reinvent ourselves as we all eventually get the chance to fly tomorrow where they fly today?

There are many icons and egos out there whose power and fortunes come from worse places and are being used to do much worse things. And there have been and are other races going on right now, be it in arms, energy, and government vs. government space races that highlight the worst in us and offer nothing in return to humanity for the waste they create.

I say let's let them run this one. Gravity be damned, don't spare the egos. After all, No matter who wins, we all will win in the end.

Rick Tumlinson is the founder of SpaceFund, a venture capital firm investing in space startups. He also founded the Space Frontier Foundation, Earthlight Foundation and New Worlds Institute and is a founding board member of the X Prize Foundation

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Rick Tumlinson
Founder of SpaceFund, Earthlight Foundation, Space Frontier Foundation and New Worlds Institute

Both a rebel and a respected leader, Rick is listed as one of the top 100 influential people in the space field. Called one of the world’s top space “visionaries,” Rick helped coin the term "NewSpace" and worked to create the new commercial space industry highlighted by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.


A leading writer, speaker, and six-time Congressional witness, Rick helped start the first mission to find water on the Moon, signed the first ever commercial data purchase agreement with NASA, helped start NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group, led the commercial takeover of the Russian Mir space station, signed the first private astronaut to fly to the space station, co-founded the Space Frontier Foundation, and was a founding board member of the X-Prize. 


As a result of his world-changing work, in 2015 he won the World Technology Award along with Craig Venter of the Human Genome project. He founded the SpaceFund venture capital company with 19 space companies in its portfolio and is a member of the US Space Force Doctrine Advisory Group.


Rick's The Space Revolution "radiopod" is featured on IHeart Radio Network's iRoc Space Radio and is available on most major podcast sites. He hosts the New Worlds Conference and the Space Cowboy Ball in Austin, Texas, and his non-profit EarthLight Foundation is creating an inclusive new movement to use space to protect the Earth and expand life into the cosmos.