The Wire: Autumn 2021Why do billionaires want to go to space? The psychology of the newest ultra-rich status symbol

(Estimated read time 5 minutes)

Why do billionaires want to go to space? The psychology of the newest ultra-rich status symbol

In recent weeks, the news has covered the recent spate of high-profile space flights. Famous billionaires, including Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos, have all set their sights on the final frontier.

While this is understandably thrilling, it also leaves many people asking why they are choosing to spend so much of their wealth on this goal. With other major issues to deal with, such as climate change or the coronavirus pandemic, you may be wondering what has inspired this recent trend among the ultra-rich.

From the look of it, this “second space race” is only just beginning so read on to find out more about why exactly billionaires want to go to space.

Some critics have questioned whether space travel is worth the environmental impact

Ever since man first looked up to the heavens, we have dreamed of travelling out of the Earth’s atmosphere. Thankfully, with recent developments in sub-orbital travel, that dream may soon become a reality.

After receiving approval from the US aviation safety regulator in June, Virgin Galactic are now offering members of the public the chance to visit space for themselves.

According to the Guardian, package deals are available if you want to make the trip with family or friends, as you can rent out the entire flight. Alternatively, if you’re feeling frugal, you can purchase a single seat for only $450,000.

While this is obviously an exciting prospect, many people have criticised the so-called “billionaire space barons”, particularly for their environmental impact.

According to the Guardian, each rocket launch produces 300 tonnes of pollution. Even when you divide that between the four potential passengers, the carbon footprint of the hour’s flight is equivalent to several years’ worth of emissions for a normal person’s daily life.

Whether or not the environmental impact of such flights is justified, you might be wondering why they’ve chosen to expand their operations into space travel.

Many of the billionaire-owned companies have made bids for lucrative public sector contracts

One of the most obvious, and perhaps cynical, explanations for the move is that it is simply driven by profit.

As you can imagine, the venture may prove to be very lucrative for the companies that can offer safe and reliable sub-orbital travel. For example, according to the BBC, one anonymous bidder was willing to spend $28 million to secure a trip on Jeff Bezos’ first crewed spaceflight in July 2021.

However, not only does the sector have vast potential for passenger travel but also has industrial applications.

In April 2021, NASA announced that it was choosing Elon Musk’s company SpaceX to build the spacecraft that will return humans to the moon. According to figures published in the Telegraph, this contract is worth a considerable $2.9 billion.

Furthermore, Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin also managed to secure a lucrative NASA contract to deliver satellites into orbit. According to the Guardian, the space agency has expressed interest in Blue Origin’s reusable heavy-lift launch vehicles.

With considerable interest in commercial travel from wealthy individuals and potentially lucrative public sector contracts, it’s not surprising why many billionaires are expanding into this fledgeling economic sector.

There is a considerable amount of prestige that comes with owning a space travel company

Another reason for the explosion of interest in space travel among billionaires is the respect that comes with it.

The original space race in the mid-20th century involved the vast resources of the two economic superpowers. The United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics poured billions of dollars and roubles into developing spacecraft in an effort to one-up each other.

Now, the 21st century has ushered in a new epoch of private companies competing to push the limits of space travel, rather than governments. As you might imagine, there is a certain prestige to this for the company’s owners, as it raises their celebrity profile.

While, in the past, the super-rich flaunted their wealth through the construction of public buildings, such as hospitals and libraries, it’s now fashionable to use it to further humanity’s aspirations to visit other planets.

Space travel helps to push the boundaries of human knowledge

One of the final reasons why many billionaires are interested in space travel, besides considerations such as money or their egos, is simply to push boundaries.

For hundreds of years, humans have been fascinated by the thoughts of space travel but, after the end of the space race, developments slowed considerably. It’s understandable why people with significant amounts of wealth would want to continue exploring this final frontier.

While human colonisation of other planets has long been the topic of science fiction, it’s now slowly becoming a reality. According to the Observer, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX aims to visit Mars by 2022 and potentially ferry a human crew there in the following years.

One of the reasons why there has been increased discussions in recent years regarding the colonisation of other planets is that we are becoming more aware of the damage that humanity is doing to Earth.

As you may have seen, a recent landmark study by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published by the BBC, warned of significant environmental disruption in coming years due to global warming.

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