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Branson’s Space Folly

A test pilot has been killed flying Richard Branson’s Virgin space shuttle, and as sad as that is, I’m hoping that the accident will now kill the project, too. 

It has none of the hallmarks of a serious scientific venture, although many have no doubt made such claims.  What Sir Richard has been promising is not to breach the frontiers of space in the interest of expanding our knowledge, but to fly celebrities and oligarchs into the great blue yonder – at a ticket price of $250,000, presumably for a first-class window seat – for no better reason than to give them a lofty view of planet earth and, presumably, the admiration of their earth-bound admirers. 

He had no shortage of takers.  They included, apparently, Mr. and Mrs. Brad Pitt – who presumably have taken the precaution to arrange for someone to look after their seven children should they fail to return – and Stephen Hawking, who supposedly lent his prestige to the venture by claiming that the human race will one day soon need to abandon the planet because it is rapidly being rendered uninhabitable. 

Sir Richard is as earnest as he is wealthy, but his vainglorious dream of providing space travel for tourists with more money than sense is surely nothing more than a yearning for self-aggrandising publicity.  The same goes, I imagine, for his passengers. 

They, of course, are entitled to do whatever they want with their soft-earned cash.  But why they think that being shot up into the air for a few minutes for a better view of the planet than they can command from their high-rise penthouse apartments is something we should all admire is beyond me.  The money – and I haven’t bothered to work out the aggregate spent on developing the spacecraft plus the price of the tickets – would surely be better spent building a hospital or two down here on the ground, in some desperate corner of the planet where people are dying in their millions from curable diseases.  If the planet is indeed becoming uninhabitable, I can’t help thinking it’s because people like Branson, with their uncountable billions, are making it so, or at least failing to contribute anything constructive to its salvation.

Is it a naïve idealism that condemns such pointless endeavours?  I think not.  I am well aware that the explorers of olden days sailed the seven then-unknown seas not so much out of a spirit of adventure but to garner booty for patrons, usually monarchs requiring the wherewithal to finance their next war.  And I’m equally aware that the purpose of the British Empire was not built to provide overflow facilities for London’s overcrowded prisons but to open up new opportunities for commerce.   

Those reasons, if not admirable, were least explicable.  Branson, so far as one can tell has no purpose in mind other than to provide a diversion for billionaires.  I would admire him more if he were now to abandon the whole silly venture and announce that he would devote a similar amount of money and effort on finding a cure for Ebola, or fund fresh-water projects in Africa.             

I entertain not the remotest expectation that he will.

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