From Vostok to laughing stock: Billionaires in space

On 12 April 1961, the first human blasted off into space. It was an amazing achievement and was a display not only of the remarkable technological prowess of those who designed and built the spacecraft, but also of the personal courage of the man inside the capsule.

His name was Yuri Gagarin and he was just 27 years old. The craft he piloted was called Vostok 1. He is correctly honoured across Russia, and his memory revered, while the Soviet leaders of that time are long forgotten. Gagarin sadly died seven years later in a plane crash.

Sixty years after Gagarin’s historic flight, the British billionaire Richard Branson and the American Jeff Bezos blasted off into space this month in vehicles built by their own private companies.

Branson’s Virgin Galactic has had a mixed record of success with their attempts to build a working spaceship. In 2014, one its vehicles crashed, killing pilot Michael Alsbury.

Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, has been around since 2000. It has named its spacecraft after the first two Americans in space, Alan Shepard and John Glenn. No mention of Gagarin, of course.

Branson and Bezos are hoping to trigger a new era of space tourism. There are already reported to be hundreds of wealthy individuals who have signed up to pay staggering amounts of money for the privilege of a few minutes of zero gravity and remarkable views of Earth. What an enormous waste of resources that could be better spent elsewhere.

The contrast between the flight of Vostok 1 in 1961 and the billionaires’ flights this summer could not be clearer — and not just because Gagarin was an actual cosmonaut whose flight lasted just under two hours.

Gagarin was a genuine hero, a pioneer whose extraordinary mission launched a new age of exploration, full of hope for all humankind. The Stalinist regime that stood behind his flight was a despicable one, but that does not take away from his heroism and the historic significance of what he achieved.

Similarly, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon just eight years later, the fact that they left behind a plaque with an anodyne message signed by soon-to-be-disgraced U.S. President Richard Nixon is not important. It does not take away from what they achieved.

Socialists are supporters of space exploration for the same reason that we support things like medical research — because believe in the potential of human beings to do great things. We know that there is plenty to invest in here on Earth, including ending poverty, dealing with the climate crisis, and so on. But we also know that we have the capacity as a global society to do more than one thing. At the same as we fix things here on Earth, we can also reach for the stars.

And we also know that much of the progress made in recent decades, including landing on the moon or inventing the internet, was not done by private companies and individuals. They were the collective efforts of large numbers of dedicated and talented scientists and engineers, funded by the public sector. This was true both in the Stalinist USSR and in the capitalist USA.

Bezos and Branson emerged from their very brief flights to the edge of place looking like the arrogant fools they are.

Branson, it turned out, had not even reached space according to some definitions of the word. Bezos flew a bit higher, just touching the boundary of space in his much-mocked penis-shaped rocket. Both flights lasted just a few minutes. Within days, NASA issued a clarification stating that neither Bezos nor Branson deserved to be called astronauts as neither had been “part of the flight crew” nor made “contributions to space flight safety”.

Upon his return to Earth, Bezos thanked “every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all of this.”

He was swiftly condemned by many, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who tweeted: “Yes, Amazon workers did pay for this – with lower wages, union busting, a frenzied and inhumane workplace, and delivery drivers not having health insurance during a pandemic.”

In another sixty years, no one will remember Bezos and Branson. But Yuri Gagarin’s achievement will still be the stuff of legends.

This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity.