Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show” and a columnist for The Daily Beast. Follow him @DeanObeidallah. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Another day, another billionaire in space. At least, that’s what it feels like. On Saturday, we saw billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX spacecraft splash down after a three-day trip personally funded by Jared Isaacman, a billionaire who was joined on the flight by three other civilians. Ahead of the trip, the estimated cost was a whopping $55 million per seat.
In July, we saw two other billionaires head into the clouds on rockets of their own: Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic flight was followed shortly by billionaire Jeff Bezos on his Blue Origin spaceship.
Billionaires are apparently so bored with planet Earth they need to fly into space for fun. Meanwhile, there are still parts of New Jersey I haven’t visited yet!
Fueling today’s “space race” between the ultra-wealthy appears to be a combination of ego and potential profits. Branson’s Virgin Galactic has already sold roughly 600 tickets to people who are willing to pay the cost of a house to be passengers on future flights. I’m serious: The price tag per Virgin Galactic ticket is between $200,000 and $250,000 – which is not much less than the median price of a home in the United States.
To be blunt, before Covid-19 perhaps these billionaires battling it out over building future space colonies or naming rights of Mars would not have bothered me as much. But while Americans were suffering through a deadly pandemic with shortages of basic needs, billionaires reportedly increased their fortunes by 54%.
Bezos, per an analysis by the Program on Inequality at the Institute for Policy Studies, saw his wealth jump from $113 billion to $178 billion between March 2020 and March 2021. And worse, recent reporting by ProPublica found the wealthiest among us weren’t paying close to their fair share in taxes. Bezos, per ProPublica, paid a “true tax rate” of .98% between 2014 and 2018, while Musk paid only 3.27% in taxes in that same timeframe. All of that truly makes this egotistical space race that much harder to cheer for.
What a contrast to the original “space race” that began in the 1950s, which pit the United States against its Cold War rival, the Soviet Union. In 1957, the Soviets made history by launching the first satellite into space. They soon topped that in 1961 when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit Earth.
The United States answered by creating its own space program in 1958, when President Dwight Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Then, on September 12, 1962, the race between the two Cold War warriors really took off as President John F. Kennedy gave his famous speech on America’s goal to land astronauts on the moon by the end of that decade.
Kennedy told Americans that “we choose to go to the moon” not because it’s “easy” but because it’s “hard.” Kennedy vowed “to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills” as Americans embarked “on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure that man has ever gone.” Seven years later, that dream was realized when American astronaut Neil Armstrong made history as he stepped foot on the moon. It was a moment of great national pride.
Our nation’s commitment to space travel, though, went far beyond competing with a Cold War foe. In fact, it’s benefited us all with breakthrough health and science discoveries. For example, the Space Shuttle missions resulted in developing better techniques to monitor the heart as well as instruments to measure bone strength. And over the past 20 years, astronauts aboard the International Space Station – orbiting roughly 250 miles above our planet – have worked for our benefit back on Earth, including the use of NASA-developed cameras in the space station to support natural disaster response both within the United States and abroad.
Compare that to the current “race to the moon” that’s playing out in federal court, pitting Jeff Bezos versus Elon Musk. The two richest people on this planet (and I’m betting on all the planets in our solar system) are dueling over a NASA contract to return astronauts to the moon. Both of these wealthy titans wanted their respective companies to get the contract, but NASA went with Musk’s SpaceX. That didn’t sit well with Bezos, leading his company to file a federal lawsuit in August claiming the contract was unfairly awarded to Musk’s company. There’s currently an October 12 deadline for the court to respond to the allegations.
Perhaps there will be some benefits from the billionaires’ space race that will trickle down to the rest of us. But the current billionaire boys club battle just makes us more aware the gap between the wealthy and rest of us is getting as wide as the distance between our planet and a billionaire’s spacecraft in flight. And that can’t be good for our society in the long run.