UN secretary-general criticizes “billionaires joyriding to space”

Space

WASHINGTON — The secretary-general of the United Nations lumped space tourism alongside corruption and loss of freedoms as part of a “malady of mistrust” facing the world, another sign of the backlash in some quarters to private human spaceflight.

In an address to the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 21, Secretary-General António Guterres singled out “billionaires joyriding to space” as one of the symptoms of growing mistrust the world’s population has toward governments and other institutions.

“At the same time, another disease is spreading in our world today: a malady of mistrust,” he said, after mentioning the pandemic and the climate crisis. That included, he said, when people “see billionaires joyriding to space while millions go hungry on earth.”

He did not elaborate on that claim in his address, saying only that such issues may cause people “to lose faith not only in their governments and institutions but in the values that have animated the work of the United Nations for over 75 years.”

While he mentioned no specific individuals or companies, his comments appeared directed in particular at Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic and their billionaire founders Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, respectively, who flew to space on suborbital spaceflights nine days apart in July. Neither company responded to a request for comment on Guterres’s speech.

His criticism may also include the Inspiration4 mission, funded by billionaire Jared Isaacman that flew to orbit on a SpaceX Crew Dragon last week that included Isaacman and three others. SpaceX is run by another billionaire, Elon Musk.

The speech by Guterres is part of a backlash that started with the flights of Bezos and Branson. Moments after the New Shepard vehicle carrying Bezos and three others safely landed July 21, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) announced plans to introduce legislation that would tax space tourism flights. “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.

A spokesperson for Blumenauer said he would introduce the bill in the “coming weeks” after consulting with experts. As of Sept. 24, the bill had not been formally introduced in the House.

The criticism includes some within the space industry. “My focus, as a satellite manufacturer, is to do space that matters for society,” said Jean-Marc Nasr, executive vice president and head of space systems at Airbus, during a panel at the company’s Airbus Summit 2021 event Sept. 22. “Everyone in society, every citizen in the world, should be having benefit from space, and not only a few billionaires that want to do circles around the planet. I think it’s what we do at Airbus: space that matters.”

Another panelist was also critical. “If it was up to me, I would use all the financial resources they’re spending for other purposes,” said Drew Shindell, professor of earth science at Duke University who does research in climate science. “I don’t think it’s a particularly valuable use of time and effort. It does help drive the market for access to space, so not entirely a bad thing.”

“I would be happy if those people also, say, donated the equivalent price of a ticket to space, to something about the environment, for example,” he added, appearing in person on the panel in Toulouse, France.

Others in the industry, though, continue to support such spaceflights. George Nield, former associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration and a current member of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, discussed the SpaceShipTwo, New Shepard and Inspiration4 flights during the panel’s latest meeting Sept. 23, even though none directly involved NASA.

“Personally, I think those launches were very significant in terms of marking what could be a new era of commercial human spaceflight,” he said. Besides allowing more people to go to space, “it will allow NASA to have the opportunity to be just one of many customers.”

“It has the potential to result in lower costs, increased innovation, new products and services, and new markets,” he added, “and motivate students and teachers about STEM, which is going to help us in developing the aerospace workforce that we need in the future.”

David West, another member of the panel, noted more near-term benefits of the Inspiration4 mission in particular, such as exercising the Crew Dragon’s life support system to a greater degree that past commercial crew flights for NASA. “SpaceX has agreed to share the data from the Inspiration4 mission with NASA, which should provide significant benefits.”

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