Richard Branson scraped the edge of space Sunday, arriving via a supersonic plane built by Virgin Galactic, a company he created. In so doing, the man who made his bones by signing The Sex Pistols to Virgin Records in 1977 upstaged another driven billionaire, Jeff Bezos, who plans his own inaugural joyride July 20 aboard the spaceship New Shepard, owned by the Amazon mogul’s own aerospace company, Blue Origin.
Unlike some, this editorial does not begrudge these billionaires their desire to boldly go, etc.
These are humans who built boundary-pushing, disruptive companies. They are free to spend their acquired billions as their restless personalities wish, and most likely there will be a job-creating market for their so-called space tourism companies, even at $250,000 per seat. Among all the marketing hype from emcee Stephen Colbert and super fan Elon Musk, Branson made some room on his inaugural flight for scholarly research into the effects of zero gravity and an expanded private sector foray into a part of the universe mostly hitherto reserved for governments might eventually teach us a few useful things about our lives down here in the City of Chicago, Planet Earth.
Moreover, who does not crave the chance to float around like the great astronauts of our childhood dreams, Earth’s gravitational pull falling away with our quotidian worries?
The only blasting away from the mother ship most of us have gotten to do has been courtesy of Atari or Xbox, either sitting on our couch or, years ago, standing at a console, plugging in quarters and wondering when our dull lives might improve. You have to admire at least the chutzpah, but also the drive of these men. And the life force of limitless aspiration can be catching for the young. It’s good for kids to know they should be limited by nothing.
But let’s be clear about something. This isn’t travel in the usual sense, meaning a chance to interact with other cultures, unless there is someone up there we don’t yet know. No one will get to seek out what the voice of William Shatner called “new life and new civilizations.” When you boil it down, Branson and Bezos will be selling $250,000 thrill rides to the edge of space, not so different, really, from the experiences those of us of humbler means might crave at the Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park in gravity-bound Gurnee. We calibrate thrills based on how much money we have in our pockets.
On Sunday, the experience of weightlessness lasted for only four minutes. And the windows on Branson’s SpaceShipTwo looked not unlike those on regular passenger jets into which we earthbound stick our heads as our humble Boeing 737 makes its final approach into Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. On a beautiful summer evening at sunset, our great city shimmering and shining, that can be enough of a thrill for anyone.
And are these billionaires, beyond their ambition and drive, doing anything really impressive?
Clearly, they’re both tending to their carefully chiseled personal brands, and those of their companies. And they’re buying the talents of great engineers, scientists and logisticians. They also are reminding us that huge fortunes and great business success do not necessarily buy calm. In these two cases, at least, they have brought a desire to keep pushing for something thrilling enough to sustain excitement and achievement when most of the thrills on earth have dissipated. There are only so many times you can get a rush from buying a private island.
We think these individuals pushing the limits with their billions make life more interesting for the rest of us and we don’t doubt their eventual philanthropic intent (we’ll be watching). But if you ask what we find impressive in the field of human achievement, we’ve been more struck by Zaila Avant-garde, the 14-year-old from Harvey, Louisiana, who became the first Black American to win the 96-year-old Scripps National Spelling Bee last Thursday, beating out 208 other contestants from five countries, even working in a delightful reference to Bill Murray on her way to victory.
As pure intellectual meritocracies go, this spelling bee is pretty unimpeachable. There was no Mr. Spock to help as Zaila stood alone on the bridge of the starship of her own scholarship, preparation and brainy heft. No flight engineer helped her spell “retene” (it’s a chemical). She didn’t float or look out of a window: She stood right there on terra firma and crushed the challenge that was presented. With personality to spare.
Zaila also holds three Guinness World Records for her basketball prowess.
Wow. There should be no frontier she cannot reach. We wonder if Branson could spell “dysphotic.” You know, under real pressure to achieve.