One Small Voice: Will space change Branson and Bezos?

“There will always be poor in the land.  Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”  — Deuteronomy 15:11

by Lynn Mandaville

The Old Testament scripture quoted above is usually used in a truncated form, using only the part about the poor always being with us.

In the full text from which this was taken, Jesus is schooling his disciples who have harshly criticized a woman for pouring expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet.  In his lesson, Jesus acknowledges that what the woman has done was an extravagant gift of love, and that he will not always be around to receive such gifts.

He is also clear that there will always be poor people for whom such a gift could have provided food or clothing.  But, he continues, that does not absolve the disciples or people in general from extending charity to their countrymen and women, hence the second sentence commanding them to be openhanded in their charity toward them.

In our modern vernacular it is convenient to use the first sentence to justify the excesses of capitalism, while ignoring the proscription to be generous.  And this will certainly be one of the citations used to justify the extravagant use of resources available to the billionaires recently in the news.

The recent “space” flights of Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic) and Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) have caused many Americans, and, I’m sure, others around the globe, to ponder what these events really mean in terms of motive, money and contribution to the human experience.

If you paid any attention to the endeavors of these two men over the past few weeks, you’ll know there was both praise and criticism from all quarters.

The detractors panned both men for 1) having mid-life crises, 2) being big men with big toys, 3) being more interested in personal glory than concrete, relatable contributions to humankind, and 4) wasting valuable financial resources that could have been directed toward more worthy causes.

Those who praised Branson and Bezos applauded them for furthering the technology involved in propelling man out of earth’s atmosphere and into the space beyond our planet.  They laud them for the things that will be learned that make life ON earth better.  They vocally approve of science getting positive attention for achievement, an A for effort, if you will.  And, finally, some will say it’s their money and they can use however they wish.

I, myself, have been pondering both sides of the Branson/Bezos coin for a few weeks now, since before the two men began their personal space races.

And, I fear, I am not done pondering, because there is no easy side to take, no easy attitude to adopt.

Without arguing for either side, I’d just like to share how far my thinking has or has not come so far.

Prior to his flight, Bezos had alluded to former astronauts who had actually made it past the Karman Line – the arbitrary boundary  between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space – who said the experience changed them as human beings.  Bezos wondered if it would change him.

Jeff Bezos

Once Bezos was back on terra ferma, he thanked everyone who works for Amazon or shops Amazon for making the venture possible.  (This was viewed by many as awkward, if not completely out-of-touch-clueless about life among the masses or his seeming disregard for the low wages he pays his employees.)

Then, within a day or two, Bezos gave $100,000,000 (that’s millions, folks) EACH to two charitable outlets:  Feeding America which, under the guidance of Chef Andres’, feeds millions of people even beyond the United States in times of crisis; and Van Jones, an American commentator, author, former government advisor on civil rights activism, and founder of several non-profits that work toward such lofty goals as prison reform and civil rights in general.

I’m not sure how Bezos arrived at the dollar amount of his largesse, but if memory serves, media sources quoted $200 million as the cost to send this first flight of Blue Origin into lower earth flight.  If that memory is correct, then perhaps he was simply matching the cost of what detractors call his joy ride with his philanthropy.  Were his motives pure – true desire to help the less fortunate? – or was he attempting to deflect some of the criticism from his obscene wealth?

That’s not mine to judge, and we may never know for sure.

But here’s what I hope will come out of these two men’s race for suborbital flight.

I hope that both men will be confronted with the humility others have said they felt when viewing earth from the heavens.

I hope that obscene capitalism may achieve some measure of balance between the selfishness of the ego and the social obligations that accompany such achievement and reward.

I hope we see further philanthropy from both men in many and various areas of charity – homelessness, hunger, medicine, human rights, education, etc.

I hope there is an enlightenment of their minds that translates into political action whereby they understand the importance to society as a whole of having a better educated population at little or no cost; where universal health care is recognized as truly more beneficial to all Americans than the one we have (which is controlled by venture capitalists, and by insurance companies and the politicians they can buy).

I hope, for Bezos, that his experience helps him to realize how important his employee base has been to his achievement, and that he reward them through far better wages, free health care, and educational scholarships to employees and their families.

Don’t get me wrong.  I still have more than a few cynical bones in my old body, and I know how the love of money can be the root of evil.

Richard Branson

One “little space flight” is not going to make a modern-day savior of Richard Branson or Jeff Bezos.

In addition, one “little space flight” is not going to revolutionize technology for future exploration or space recreation.

But I like to believe that it’s true, especially for the wealthy, what I wrote about for this publication more than two years ago, that good works are done because they make the doer of the works feel just so damn good.  Maybe even better than the adrenaline rush of 5Gs and plummeting to earth beneath three fragile parachutes.

I hope Branson and Bezos get from this endeavor what I get from volunteering at my library, which is a raised sense of self-esteem (where you look in the mirror and really, really like yourself), a rush of endorphins that leave you giddy for hours on end, and an addiction to those two things that make you crave giving away more and more of your time and financial wealth to causes that can make better countless lives living on our big, blue marble.

If these men, and the experts who have made their ego-flights possible, can advance technology and make people recognize the value of preserving our planet, that will the cherry on top of this outer space sundae.

I won’t be done thinking about what these momentous flights of fancy mean to humanity in the long run.

And along the way I will enjoy seeing how history and the talking heads interpret this ambiguous accomplishment we have been privileged to witness.


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