Delusions of Escape

Examining the Ethics of Billionaire Blast-Offs

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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

To all you kids down there, I was once a child with a dream, looking up to the stars. Now, I’m an adult in a spaceship, with lots of other wonderful adults looking down to our beautiful, beautiful Earth. To the next generation of dreamers, if we can do this, just imagine what you can do. Aye! — Richard Branson from his seat in the VSS Unity on 11 July 2021

British business tycoon Richard Branson and a group of fellow travelers this week blasted off in a small rocket called the VSS Unity, dropped from a larger aircraft, to travel to the edge of space. Flying up some 86 kilometers above the surface of the Earth, Branson and his team experienced about four minutes of microgravity.

Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer for the journey and a passenger on the flight, said of his experience looking out over Earth from above: “It’s very Zen. What jumped out at me were the colors and just how far away it looked. It felt like we were just so far up there, and I was just mesmerized.” [1]The New York Times “Branson Completes Virgin Galactic Flight, Aiming to Open Up Space Tourism”

A moment of Zen, a childhood dream fulfilled, but what more could this new age of space travel offer? In particular, in what ways—if any—can it help ease our common suffering or relieve our condition of ignorance?

For skeptics, the truth is simply that it cannot. For this flight and Jeff Bezos’ upcoming flight—which is anticipated to soar more than 100 kilometers above the Earth—the benefits seem to be vastly outweighed by the costs: namely the use of resources that might be better directed to pressing issues on the ground. As critics point out, someone like Jeff Bezos, with a net worth of some US$214 billion, could virtually eradicate world hunger if he wished to do so. Meanwhile, 600 or so customers have paid US$200,000 for their tickets on a ride into space and taxpayers in New Mexico have paid US$220 million to create Spaceport America, a purpose-built commercial space travel hub in the desert, some 100 kilometers south of Albuquerque, which will host the space activities of Branson and others.

© mikhail serdyukov from Unsplash

In what ways—if any—can [this new age of space travel] help ease our common suffering or relieve our condition of ignorance? For skeptics, the truth is simply that it cannot.

The massive financial commitment for “space tourism,” as some call it, has left many unhappy, especially at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has damaged the lives and livelihoods of so many around the world, and when recent erratic weather—from heatwaves and fires in North America to excessive rains and flooding in Western Europe—has renewed our focus on the precarity of our place as a species on Earth. London-based journalist Holly Thomas writes that the space flight brought to mind several problems, most important being the question of priorities:

At the time of this writing, the Western US is experiencing another day of record-breaking temperatures, with over 24 million people under heat alerts and more than 100 deaths (which some Oregon officials are referring to as a mass casualty event). Across 12 states, 55 large fires burned 768,307 acres over the weekend, and Death Valley reported a low temperature of 107.7 degrees overnight—the highest overnight low ever recorded in North America. According to scientists, the recent heat wave in the Pacific Northwest would have been “virtually impossible” without the effect of human-caused climate change. Mitigating further climate damage is the most urgent challenge currently facing the planet—one which should interest the world’s billionaires far more than that of stepping just over the well-trod threshold of space.  [2]CNN “Richard Branson’s disappointing space jaunt”

She does, however, note some of the benefits from space travel in general, while observing that Branson’s trip adds nothing to what we have already learned:

Astronauts who have traveled far further than Richard Branson tend to describe a feeling of unity and coherence, and an overwhelming sense of the Earth’s fragility, when they look back on the bright globe hanging in the blackness of space.

In his book “The Orbital Perspective,” NASA astronaut Ron Garan said that he couldn’t help thinking, as he gazed back upon this “paradise,” of “the nearly one billion people who don’t have clean water to drink, the countless number who go to bed hungry every night, the social injustice, conflicts, and poverty that remain pervasive across the planet.” 

If only Richard Branson had paid a little more attention to those who paved the way. [3]CNN “Richard Branson’s disappointing space jaunt”

While Branson’s achievement of his childhood dream may spark progress, conversations about what this means and who benefits and who loses must include as many people as possible, especially raising up those voices that are most commonly ignored.

I want! I want!, by William Blake, 1793 © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

For critics, the billionaires’ space race is a modern-day realization of William Blake’s tiny illustration, titled, “I want! I want!” Drawn in 1793, the image appears to show a child climbing a ladder to the Moon as two parental figures stand by. Open, as art is, to a range of interpretations, an obvious way of seeing this is as a commentary on the nature of desire, especially our childhood urges. For Buddhists, the Second Noble Truth focuses on this aspect of human nature: our seemingly insatiable craving and the fact that it is the cause of suffering. While one man attaining his childhood dream is wonderful, we live in a world of finite resources and many environmentalists are strongly stressing our need to reduce our burning of fossil fuels, not increasing them as more and more people venture into space. Monica Vidaurri, an astrobiologist and policy and ethics specialist who consults for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, supports raising the voices of critics and skeptics, saying: “Progress without even the slightest consideration of socio-economic implications or how exploration can facilitate exploitation on a global scale will do more harm than good.” [4]Physics World “Building an ethical consensus for space exploration”

While Branson’s achievement of his childhood dream may spark progress, conversations about what this means and who benefits and who loses must include as many people as possible, especially raising up those voices that are most commonly ignored. We have the privilege and ability today to do that and it is a privilege which could be lost if we fail to listen. Philosopher Ellen Klein opens her discussion of the ethics of space travel by citing the example of Easter Island, where—in a history not fully understood—the people seemed driven to

. . . deforestation, soil depletion, and erosion . . . an overall devastating ecological scenario resulting in overpopulation, food shortages, cannibalism, and war.” (Dr Jo Anne Van Tilburg, Nova, PBS On line, August 31, 2001.) Their complex culture imploded. With no trees left even to build fishing boats, the population shrank to a fifth of its previous level. That is, the Rapanui paid a huge price for “the way they chose to articulate their spiritual and political ideas. [5]Philosophy Now “Space Exploration: Humanity’s Single Most Important Moral Imperative”

For many historians and climate scientists, the conditions from previous civilizational collapses seem to be repeating themselves. Perhaps more people seeing the fragility of earth from 80 or 100 kilometers up—along with further strides into our solar system and beyond—could inspire a new wave of deep ecologists, people who realize innately and are willing to argue passionately for the interconnectedness of Earth’s many fragile systems. If that, indeed, is the motivation for public travel to space, then it could be seen by Buddhists as Right Effort (samma vayama). However, knowing the history of humanity and hearing the voices of so many who see little more than hubris and destruction in these actions should give us pause.

We know from many great Buddhist practitioners as well as from others that we can gain this awareness and care for all beings on Earth and beyond without building expansive spaceports and blasting ourselves into the sky. Perhaps more meditation on our own vast psycho-physical depths is enough, or a trip to the nearest planetarium.

This article was originally published on Buddhistdoor Global as Expanding our Vision in a New Era of Space Exploration. It is reprinted here with permission.

Justin Whitaker

Justin Whitaker

Justin Whitaker grew up on a dirt road 10 miles from the nearest town in Montana. In college he stumbled upon Philosophy and Buddhism, two loves that have carried him around the world ever since. He now holds a PhD in Buddhist ethics from the University of London and lives in Missoula, Montana.
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