Space Balls

Mark O’Connell

Neil Armstrong playing the ukulele in quarantine after returning from the Moon in 1969. Photograph © Nasa

A few weeks ago, around the time Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson were penetrating the lower reaches of space, I watched the film For All Mankind. Al Reinert’s documentary, released in 1989, is a gorgeous, melancholy record of the Apollo lunar missions, composed of Nasa footage from those flights, overlaid with audio of the astronauts recalling their experiences.

Reinert doesn’t provide us with the names of any of the men. Like the oral histories of Svetlana Alexeivich, the interviews form a depersonalised chorus, contributing to a sense of historical scale beyond any individual. This is a point that the astronauts themselves, in their straight-shooting manner, keep making. ‘You recognise that you’re not there because you deserve to be there,’ one of them says. ‘You’re just lucky. You are the representative of humanity at that point in history, having that experience in a sense for the rest of mankind.’

The astronauts remain in awe of what they experienced, and aware of their role as cogs in an intricate machinery of expertise and ingenuity. In one early scene, we see the Moon through a porthole in the shuttle, glowing pale against the lurid blue of a Florida afternoon, as an unnamed astronaut frames his job in comically modest terms:

And doggone if the Moon wasn’t visible in the daylight, right straight at the top of the window. I know they’re doing their job right, because the Moon is right straight ahead, and that’s where we’re pointed, and they’re going to launch us right straight to this thing.

For All Mankind is structured around a central contradiction. Nasa’s space programme cultivated a sense of collective purpose, but the urgency of the space race was inseparable from the struggle between two competing economic and political systems. Nasa’s retiring of the space shuttle a decade ago is often seen as a marker of cultural decline; it may well be that, but it’s also a consequence of there being no one left to race against.

As Branson flew to the edge of space this year in his Virgin Galactic rocket plane, he gazed out over the world below and pronounced it ‘the complete experience of a lifetime’. Later, in a press conference, he said: ‘The whole thing was just magical.’ He sounded less like one of the astronauts in For All Mankind than a wealthy retiree just home from a luxury cruise.

Bezos, meanwhile, on returning from his fifteen-minute jaunt into the thermosphere, posted a short video to Instagram. We see him in the small but luxurious-looking cabin with his younger brother Mark (whose Wikipedia entry describes him as an ‘American space tourist and former advertising executive’), the octogenarian aviator Wally Funk and a teenager named Oliver Daemen, whose father, the CEO of a private equity firm, forked out for him to take a place on the shuttle. As they reach zero gravity, the space tourists unbuckle their seatbelts and float about the cabin, giddy with the thrill of weightlessness and the sight of the void outside the window.

‘Look at the blackness of space!’ says the richest man in the world, as he looks at the blackness of space. Then Bezos produces an orange ping pong ball, and sends it drifting across the cabin to his brother. ‘Oh yeah, ping pong balls!’ the teenager says, and produces an orange ping pong ball of his own. For a while, the ping pong balls float through the cabin, until Bezos ups the ante by producing a packet of Skittles, and he and his fellow passengers start throwing sweets at each other and catching them in their mouths.

It all looks quite fun but curiously purposeless, devoid of the charm and spontaneity that characterises footage of the Apollo astronauts goofing around – playing a little golf in a lunar crater, tossing a flashlight back and forth in zero gravity – which is charming because it is at odds with the historical significance of their task. The overwhelming effect of watching Bezos and Branson go to space is a sense of triviality. There is no sense of mission here, and barely any sense of occasion, beyond the personal fulfilment of those involved. At best, it has a kind of anthropological interest, observing the leisure pursuits of the super-rich. One small Skittle for a man, no Skittles at all for mankind.

Even the attempts to give Bezos’s adventure historical weight seem only to amplify its inanity. Wally Funk, at 82, is the oldest person ever to go to space. She underwent lengthy and rigorous training as part of Nasa’s ‘Women in Space’ programme in the 1960s but never got to go. (Nasa’s first woman in space was Sally Ride, in 1983, twenty years after the cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova.) But Bezos’s decision to take Funk along comes across as a PR exercise. As for Oliver Daemen, he may be the youngest person ever to go to space but the achievement is fatally undermined by the fact that it was paid for by his dad.

Bezos would not agree. He started Blue Origin, his space exploration company, out of a professed desire to save the world. Its stated aim is to develop technologies that will facilitate the building and settlement of colonies in space. The main problem we face, Bezos believes, is that we are on a course to run out of energy. We need to move into outer space, he says, to access resources, and to relocate heavy industry there so we can preserve the Earth’s atmosphere and climate. He dreams of thousands of off-world colonies, where trillions of humans will live and work.

Elon Musk, Bezos’s main rival in the emerging game of cosmic monopoly, has his own plan for saving humanity (and further enriching himself through US government contracts). He hopes to build private colonies on Mars, so that if some disaster – climate catastrophe, asteroid impact, nuclear war – makes Earth inhospitable to human life, our species will continue to thrive elsewhere. The idea, as Ashley Vance put it in The Space Barons (2018), is to ‘make humans a multiplanet species, and create a backup hard drive for the human race there, just in case Earth crashes like a faulty computer’. In the nearer future, we can look forward to advertising billboards being shot via SpaceX rockets into low-Earth orbit, there to have their corporate messages filmed on selfie-sticks and live-streamed back to Earth on YouTube and Twitch. In 2018, Musk launched a Tesla Roadster into orbit, with a mannequin in a spacesuit behind the steering wheel.

Probably the most revealing moment of Bezos’s space jaunt came shortly after he landed. Still togged out in his rugged individualism costume (blue spacesuit, ten-gallon hat, cowboy boots), he gave a televised speech in which he thanked the engineers and tech people who helped him slip the surly bonds. He saved his most effusive gratitude for Amazon’s customers and employees. ‘You guys paid for all this,’ he said. ‘Seriously. For every Amazon customer out there, and every Amazon employee, thank you, from the bottom of my heart.’ It was a strangely repellent remark: for all that Bezos seemed to mean it sincerely, it landed with a complex payload of gloating derision.

When the news of Bezos and Branson’s space excursions was most unavoidable, I found myself returning, with perverse insistence, to YouTube, to watch footage of the first Moon landing. Every time, I had to sit through a pre-roll advertisement in which Richard Branson offered me the chance to meet him, have a private tour of his spaceport, and be flown into low orbit on one of his Virgin Galactic space planes. Space used to be cool. Now the very idea of it has been degraded by these salesmen in spacesuits.

But what if the salesmen are a sign not of failure but of success? Whatever else it was, Nasa’s space programme was a front in the larger struggle between capitalism and communism, in which capitalism was the resounding victor. Bezos, Branson and Musk may, in that sense, be the rightful heirs of those Nasa astronauts. What better sign of capitalism’s ultimate victory than billionaires competing against each other with their own space programmes? To watch them rise, high above the heating planet in their branded spacecraft, is to be forced to reckon with how far we have fallen.


  • 31 August 2021 at 2:30pm
    stevemerlan says:
    Just to be fair to billionaires. remember that the first automobiles were expensive toys for the rich. Of course the progression from DeDions ( pull down your Collette and read about Gigi in Tonton's pouf-pouf) to Model Ts was no such leap as from suborbital joyrides to a functioning civilization on Mars.

    But one of the functions of the very rich is to introduce new fashions and give us something to moralize about. Try Martial.

    Steve Merlan
    Santa Fe NM

  • 8 September 2021 at 6:31am
    Ellerm says:
    Great article thanks. But I can't understand the logic of wanting to set up on Mars (an inhospitable planet) in case Earth becomes inhospitable. Wouldn't it be more logical to just make sure Earth doesn't become inhospitable? Admittedly a less profitable enterprise...