Rocket men: how billionaires are using celebrities as PR for their space projects

As Star Trek’s Captain James T Kirk, he voyaged the universe for the good of humanity. The nonagenarian actor William Shatner’s brief, real-life thrill ride off the planet today, however, is much less about advancing the species than promoting the fortunes of Blue Origin, the private space company owned by the Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos that’s taking him there.

Booking arguably the most famous fictional space traveler in history to front only the second crewed flight of Bezos’s New Shepard rocket system has secured a vast slew of positive publicity that not even the huge wealth of the world’s richest man could otherwise have purchased.

That Shatner, 90, is set to become the oldest human in space during the 11-minute jaunt with three other civilian passengers from a launchpad in the Texas desert is another welcome bonus for Blue Origin, the troubled Washington-based company that became mired this month in allegations of sexism and a “toxic, authoritarian workplace culture” including safety shortcuts.

Bezos, who rejects the claims, insists that commercial, short-duration joyrides such as Shatner’s, and the maiden crewed flight of New Shepard in July carrying himself and his brother Mark, are crucial to his longer-term vision of moving Earth’s heavy industry into space.

The rocket, he says, and particularly its heavy-lift sister, the much vaunted but long-delayed New Glenn, are pioneering reusable spacecraft that will transform the way countries operate in space while sending traditionally government-funded costs tumbling.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson carries crew member Sirisha Bandla on his shoulders while celebrating their flight to space on 11 July.
The Virgin Galactic founder, Richard Branson, carries crew member Sirisha Bandla on his shoulders while celebrating their flight to space on 11 July. Photograph: Andres Leighton/AP

Yet alongside environmental concerns over proliferating numbers of propellant-hungry rockets, cynics see little technological or exploration value in so-called space tourism, in which companies owned by multi-billionaires such as Bezos, Virgin’s Richard Branson and the Paypal, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk charge eye-popping amounts for an excursion, however fleeting, to the stars.

To some analysts, the well-publicized jaunts from Bezos and Branson are big on capturing attention but deliver little more than moments of weightlessness and the barest glimpse of space not even 70 miles from Earth, when Nasa sent astronauts 250,000 miles to land on the moon way back in 1969.

“Human exploration is about the future, and space exploration is a long bet on a very distant tomorrow. What kind of future will the billionaire space race promote?” wrote Scott Galloway, a professor of brand strategy and marketing at New York University’s Stern school of business in his blog No Mercy/No Malice.

“One clue: after his flight Bezos said, ‘I want to thank every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all this.’ He’s right. We did pay for it. Eighty-two per cent of American households are Prime members.”

“In the Prime space future, we won’t have astronauts. We’ll have egonauts. Whatever you think of space travel as a human endeavor, space tourism is an awful business.”

To a degree, at least, Bezos appears to agree.

In an interview with CNN in July he was asked his reply to critics who said such flights were joyrides for the wealthy, and billionaires should better spend their time, energy and money solving problems on Earth.

“I say they’re largely right. We have to do both,” he said, adding that Blue Origin’s mission was about “building a road to space for the next generations to do amazing things there, and those amazing things will solve problems here on Earth”.

Jeff Bezos wears a Blue Origins jacket and a cowboy hat during a post launch briefing on 20 July.
Jeff Bezos said Blue Origin’s mission was about ‘building a road to space for the next generations to do amazing things there’. Photograph: Tony Gutierrez/AP

With paying passengers, Bezos is also at the forefront of a potentially lucrative industry projected to be worth more than $2.5bn by 2027, and is reported to have sold $100m in Blue Origin tickets, all while Amazon continues to resist unionization efforts by workers and faces criticism for “exploitative” pay and conditions. The winner of an auction for a seat on his first flight, who later pulled out due to a “scheduling conflict”, paid $30m.

“If Mr Bezos was genuine about doing something, he could raise the minimum wage at his firm to $20 an hour,” Galloway said.

Branson, meanwhile, made his own journey to the edge of space nine days before Bezos aboard Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity rocketship, and opened sales for flights scheduled to begin next year soon after.

Musk, whose SpaceX venture is already ferrying US astronauts to and from the international space station in partnership with Nasa, is the only operator to have sent a private crew into orbit. Last month’s Inspiration4 mission, which raised more than $210m for the St Jude children’s hospital, is seen as a forerunner to more ambitious plans such as taking tourists to the ISS and around the moon.

The perceived lack of societal benefits from such flights prompted one Democratic politician, the Oregon congressman Earl Blumenauer, to propose a tax on space tourists and the companies that carry them.

“Space exploration isn’t a tax-free holiday for the wealthy. Just as normal Americans pay taxes when they buy airline tickets, billionaires who fly into space to produce nothing of scientific value should do the same, and then some,” he said in a statement.

“I’m not opposed to this type of space innovation. However, things that are done purely for tourism or entertainment, and that don’t have a scientific purpose, should in turn support the public good.”