For the man who has everything, only a space rocket will do

21 April 2018

9:00 AM

21 April 2018

9:00 AM

Today’s VHNWI wants a PRSHLS. That’s Very High Net-Worth Individual and Partially Reuseable Super Heavy Lift System. Or, in the demotic, the rich want space rockets.

‘It’s not rocket science’, people say when describing the technique of making, say, an omelette — even if making an omelette requires a certain deftness of hand and nice judgment. So what is it? Rocket science is a mixture of ballistics, aeronautics, chemistry and computation, now cocktailed with extreme wealth, galactic obsessions and a faraway look in the eye.

Once, the prerogative of the rich was to assault the environment with fast cars, burning oil and cruelly crushing molecules of air as they progressed. Now, the billionaire’s toy box contains rockets, which add new semantic richness to the concept of gas-guzzling. Robber Barons used iron and coal; Space Barons use liquid nitrogen and aerospace-grade titanium.

The environmental assault, however, continues. It’s estimated that the last launch of Elon Musk’s Space-X resulted in a 560- mile-wide hole torn in the ionosphere, compromising local GPS signals and exposing us to deadly death rays from outer space — and further exposure to Elon’s lethal grin.

Jan Morris calls Musk ‘the most interesting man alive’; but I think he may merely be the most annoying. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is his rival, although their characters are different. Musk, according to Christian Davenport, is loud and fast, with a tendency to micromanage. Bezos is quiet and slow. He has a ‘trademark maniacal laugh’. Yes, I bet he does. And let’s not exclude our own Richard Branson, an eager cadet to Musk and Bezos in the matter of VHNWI rocketry.

What are the psychologies at work here? Significantly, both Bezos and Musk were interested in space before they built the businesses which made them rich enough to penetrate it. Bezos, a child maths prodigy with an unsettled background (the family name is that of his adoptive Cuban father), had made $5 billion by 2005 when he was only 41. Genius was advertised early in a high school paper called ‘The Effect of Zero Gravity on the Ageing Rate of the Common House-fly’. For his part, Musk has a parallel genius for deal-making: he acquired 197 acres, a test-bed and five buildings for his space programme at an annual rent of just $45,000.

There are elements of Cold War nostalgia at work here. In 1957, Sputnik re-branded the USSR as technologically advanced, shaming Kennedy into the moon shot. In 1969, the year an American astronaut eventually took that giant step for mankind, Pan Am, in all seriousness, began selling tickets for future space rides.

Pan Am soon went bust. And after the glorious moon landing, Nasa never achieved anything of similar value either technically or in terms of PR. The Space Shuttle, for example, is now widely understood to be a dangerous, irrelevant and expensive waste of time and money. Thus, it’s tempting to see Bezos and Musk as Trumpian patriots making America great again. Space exploration was once the province of sovereign nations; now it belongs to the super-rich. What does that do for your ego?

Savour the absurdities. Musk is having difficulty manufacturing his Tesla Model 3 cars in the numbers he promised, so what chance do we give him of conquering the cosmos? In any case, why name a car after someone who thought wiggling your toes increased IQ, and shared a room in a New York residential hotel with pigeons? Musk says his interest in space is insurance against an ‘eventual extinction event’— something, what with conflagrations and autopilot crashes, is already a daily possibility for Tesla drivers.

Bezos’s insistence on a reusable rocket, the important element in his outer-space business plan, is a rare concession to environmental responsibility. Back on earth, Amazon manages huge server farms powered by diesel generators and cooled by toxic air-con. It runs godless warehouses, creepily known in evangelical English as ‘fulfilment centres’, whence fuming vans are launched to clog cities, distributing made-in-China junk wrapped in too much brown corrugated cardboard.

Amazon is an environmental atrocity, yet Jeff is going to save the planet with rockets. Musk wants us to become a ‘multi-planet species’, while we busily muck up the only planet we have. For an apex-predator billionaire, the attraction of space may be that there is no finish line. As displacement activities go, rockets have a lot to be said for them.

Davenport is a staff writer on the Washington Post. Space Barons is fastidious and engrossing, but written in that irritating facsimile reportage style familiar to anyone who reads quality US print media. On the whole he resists the very considerable temptations of satire available here: to the sceptical English ear, his voice is too slavish and adoring, and his account a bit episodic.

Who knew that the internet was going to become an oligopoly, with the world’s information and shopping controlled not by a networked democracy but by amateur rocket scientists? Mark Zuckerberg has not gone into space yet, but don’t bet against it. Lunatics were disturbed people who stared wistfully at the moon. Now we need a bigger word. Galactics?

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