Richard Branson scraped the edge of space Sunday, arriving via a supersonic plane built by Virgin Galactic, a company he created. In so doing, the man who made his bones by signing The Sex Pistols to Virgin Records in 1977 upstaged another driven billionaire, Jeff Bezos, who plans his own inaugural joyride July 20 aboard the spaceship New Shepard, owned by the Amazon mogul’s own aerospace company, Blue Origin.
Unlike some, we do not begrudge these billionaires their desire to boldly go, etc.
These are humans who built boundary-pushing, disruptive companies. They are free to spend their acquired billions as their restless personalities wish, and most likely there will be a job-creating market for their so-called space tourism companies, even at $250,000 per seat.
Moreover, who does not crave the chance to float around like the great astronauts of our childhood dreams, Earth’s gravitational pull falling away with our quotidian worries?
The only blasting away from the mother ship most of us have gotten to do has been courtesy of Atari or Xbox, either sitting on our couch or, years ago, standing at a console, plugging in quarters and wondering when our dull lives might improve.
You have to admire at least the chutzpah, but also the drive of these men. But let’s be clear about something. This isn’t travel in the usual sense, meaning a chance to interact with other cultures, unless there is someone up there we don’t yet know.
When you boil it down, Branson and Bezos will be selling $250,000 thrill rides to the edge of space—not so different, really, from the experiences those of us of humbler means might crave at the Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park in gravity-bound Gurnee, Illinois. We calibrate thrills based on how much money we have in our pockets.
So we ask: Are these billionaires, beyond their ambition and drive, doing anything really impressive?
Clearly, they’re both tending to their carefully chiseled personal brands, and those of their companies. In these two cases, at least, they have brought a desire to keep pushing for something thrilling enough to sustain excitement and achievement when most of the thrills on Earth have dissipated. There are only so many times you can get a rush from buying a private island.
But if you ask what we find impressive in the field of human achievement, we’ve been more struck by Zaila Avant-garde, the 14-year-old from Harvey, Louisiana, who became the first Black American to win the 96-year-old Scripps National Spelling Bee last Thursday, beating out 208 other contestants from five countries.
As pure intellectual meritocracies go, this spelling bee is pretty unimpeachable. There was no Mr. Spock to help as Zaila stood alone on the bridge of the starship of her own scholarship, preparation and brainy heft. Nobody helped her spell “retene” (it’s a chemical). She didn’t float or look out of a window: She stood right there on terra firma and crushed the challenge that was presented. With personality to spare.
Zaila also holds three Guinness World Records for her basketball prowess.
Wow. There should be no frontier she cannot reach. We wonder if Branson could spell “dysphotic.” You know, under real pressure to achieve.