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Blue Origin Launch

The New Shepard Blue Origin rocket lifts off from the launch pad carrying Jeff Bezos and three crew members to space on July 20 in Van Horn, Texas. | Source: Joe Raedle / Getty

UPDATED: 9:00 a.m. ET, July 20

Originally published: July 12

This week, it’s Jeff Bezos‘ turn to cash in on the space sweepstakes as billionaires jockey for supremacy beyond the global financial domination they’ve already enjoyed on Earth. The founder of Amazon, who also happens to be the richest person in the world, was scheduled to blast off into space on Tuesday via his Blue Origin company’s New Shepard rocket.

It was billed as Blue Origin’s first human flight.

But the point of the launch is not completely clear beyond it simply being a pet project for the billionaire who can afford to do anything he wants. Fortune estimates that Bezos spent about $1.3 billion of his $187 billion fortune making the launch happen.

“Ever since I was five years old, I’ve dreamed of traveling to space,” Bezos posted on Instagram last month. “On July 20th, I will take that journey with my brother. The greatest adventure, with my best friend.”

In other words, he’s just launching into space for the sport of it.

Critics have called the launch a “joyride,” something Bezos has acknowledged as being “largely right.”

During a CNN interview on Monday alongside his space crew (his brother, Mark Bezos, Oliver Daemen — an 18-year-old whose father paid millions for him to be a passenger — and pioneering aviator Wally Funk), Bezos said that he was equally as concerned about issues on Earth as he was about solutions in space.

“We have lots of problems here and now on Earth and we need to work on those, and we always need to look to the future,” Bezos said. “We’ve always done that as a species, as a civilization. We have to do both.”

Everybody has priorities. It just so happens that for the vast majority of humans, going to space is probably not at the top of their lists.

Instead, there are basic human needs that warrant much more immediate attention, what with the scourges of poverty, homelessness, unemployment, education, oh, and a little something called the COVID-19 pandemic — to name but a few urgent matters — refusing to budge from their evil perches across the world.

But never mind those very fixable socio-economic and public health issues — many of which have lingered since Neil Armstrong became the first American to walk on the moon nearly 52 years ago when many of those same issues also appeared to be much less of a priority than sending people to space.

(Editor’s note: No, this isn’t about pocket-watching, and people can spend their money on whatever they like. It is about priorities, however.)

It was in that context that Gil Scott-Heron in 1970 penned and performed his iconic poem-song, “Whitey On The Moon,” which was a nod to the privileges enjoyed by non-Black people that allowed them to pursue their prideful pet projects that did not necessarily make the world a better place for most Americans.

It may have also been in that same context that some cynics viewed Sir Richard Branson‘s flight launch last week to the “upper sky” (© Michael Harriot). The mega-billionaire had the news cycle in a stranglehold after billing his Virgin Galactic company’s sleek new space aircraft launch as all but the Second Coming for the aerospace industry, flying just 50 miles above the earth with a crew of civilians over a New Mexico desert.

To be sure, space exploration is certainly important and necessary from a scientific standpoint.

But at face value, Branson’s flight (not really a launch) seemed to accomplish a little more than establishing bragging rights for a man who has made a career by living out his greatest adventures in the public eye.

He’s clearly not alone. In fact, aside from Bezos, Elon Musk — whose SpaceX company continues to launch missions into space — is “winning” what CNBC has acknowledged as “the billionaire space race.

Peeling back a few of the superficial layers, though, exposes the likely true motivations — or, the aforementioned priorities — that are fueling these billionaires’ space expeditions: making more money.

Beneath Branson’s aerospace ambitions lie plans to monetize his trip by helping to normalize commercial space travel, an industry from which he stands to greatly and further enrich himself. Virgin Galactic CEO referred to it as a  “commercial space endeavor.”

(Another way to look at it is that billionaires are trying to further enrich themselves in an industry that has historically excluded people of color — you know, the folks who make up the bulk of us struggling to live on earth — but we won’t go there… yet.)

The launch played out as one huge infomercial, complete with being hosted by … Stephen Colbert?

US-SPACE-TOURISM-BEZOS-BRANSON

The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo space plane Unity and mothership separate as they fly way above Spaceport America, near Truth and Consequences, New Mexico on July 11 on the way to the cosmos. | Source: PATRICK T. FALLON / Getty

It can’t be ignored that Branson, a British citizen who is worth nearly $6 billion, had his launch paid for by $220 million in New Mexico taxpayers’ funds, according to the New York Times. In fact, Bezos and Musk — among the top three richest men in the world — had their separate space projects funded in part by “a tax break intended to help poor communities,” Bloomberg reported last year.

Unlike when Armstrong planted his feet and the American flag on the craterous surface of the moon in 1969, this latest wave of billionaire-funded space trips increasingly seem less for scientific and discovery purposes and more for reasons of the ego-stroking and sport varieties.

All of which is why the aforementioned Gil Scott-Heron song still resonates in 2021.

Using the “whitey” euphemism absent of racist intentions and to underscore the racial lines between privilege and poverty, Scott-Heron brilliantly breaks down the bigger picture that was surrounding space travel in the late 1960s and early 1970s — a bigger picture that remains largely intact to this day.

Or, as Pennsylvania State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta accurately tweeted, “We can send billionaires to space but not kids to fully funded public schools.”

Listen to it for yourself and read the lyrics below, courtesy of the Genius website, and see if you notice any parallels more than a half-century later.

We have a poem here, it’s called “Whitey On The Moon”

It was inspired by some whiteys on the moon

So I wanna give credit where credit is due

A rat done bit my sister Nell

With whitey on the moon

Her face and arms began to swell

And whitey’s on the moon

I can’t pay no doctor bills

But whitey’s on the moon

Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still

While whitey’s on the moon

The man just upped my rent last night

Cause whitey’s on the moon

No hot water, no toilets, no lights

But whitey’s on the moon

I wonder why he’s upping me?

Cause whitey’s on the moon?

Well I was already giving him fifty a week

With whitey on the moon

Taxes taking my whole damn check

Junkies making me a nervous wreck

The price of food is going up

And as if all that shit wasn’t enough:

A rat done bit my sister Nell

With whitey on the moon

Her face and arm began to swell

And whitey’s on the moon

Was all that money I made last year

For whitey on the moon?

How come I ain’t got no money here?

Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon

Y’know I just ’bout had my fill

Of whitey on the moon

I think I’ll send these doctor bills

Airmail special

To whitey on the moon

Where is the lie?

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