"Space Barons": What actually drives Bezos, Musk, and other billionaires to the stars?

Van Horn, Texas - Though his Blue Origin flight made it to the edge of space and back on Tuesday, Jeff Bezos drew all attention away from the feat by gifting $200 million during the press conference.

Blue Origin and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (r.) exists the crew capsule after landing in the desert of west Texas on Tuesday.
Blue Origin and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (r.) exists the crew capsule after landing in the desert of west Texas on Tuesday.  © IMAGO/ ZUMA Wire

"Space barons": that's how some are now describing Jeff Bezos (57), Richard Branson (71), and Elon Musk (50), the three impossibly rich men who turned to the stars after building empires here on earth.

And it seems that those rockets heading up and out aren't just fueled with liquid hydrogen and oxygen, but with a whole lot of ego too.

Could rocketing to billionaire status be to blame why these barons seem more than a little out of touch with "human" issues?

Geek Wire reports that after returning to earth on Tuesday, Jeff Bezos used the follow-up press conference as an opportunity to announce the creation of The Courage and Civility Award, which he then awarded to celebrity chef Jose Andres and political commentator Van Jones, along with $100 million a piece for the two to distribute to charity.

While both men are wealthy in their own right, they are worth just $50 million and $5 million respectively. "They can give it all to their own charity or they can share the wealth. It’s up to them," Bezos said.

The point of the award, according to Bezos, is to honor "leaders who aim high, pursue solutions with courage, and always do so with civility."

"We live in a world where sometimes instead of disagreeing with someones ideas, we question their character or motives. Guess what? After you do that, it's pretty damn hard to work with that person. Really what we should always be doing is questioning ideas, not the person. We need unifiers and not vilifiers."

It is a nice philosophy, in theory. But Bezos' own companies don't have the best track record with civility.

A rich man's rivalry

Jeff Bezos (57) just days before the first manned flight for his company Blue Origin.
Jeff Bezos (57) just days before the first manned flight for his company Blue Origin.  © IMAGO/ Zuma Press

The announcement came out of the blue, just as New Shepherd did Tuesday. Choosing to introduce the award at the press conference seems to have confused a lot of people who viewed it as Bezos giving himself a pat on the back after Blue Origin's first successful foray into space travel.

Viewers also were left with a sour taste in their mouth when Bezos added, "I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all this."

This was a particularly out-of-touch statement for the billionaire, given that Amazon has been embroiled in lawsuits over abusive treatment of employees.

Last week, Bezos donated another $200 million to the National Air & Space Museum. Blue Origin's non-profit division also recently donated $19 million to 19 space nonprofits. But as the employees Bezos thanked have been complaining of being overworked and underpaid for years, clearly resources could be far better distributed.

Bezos' tactless comment also illustrates that each move made in this billionaire's space race – from launches to newly minted awards – is due more to growing ego and competition than a desire to help society going forward. Jackie Wattles at CNN Business pointed out examples of a continuing schoolyard rivalry with Musk and called Bezos a "copycat" after an announcement that Amazon would also create a satellite internet array, similar to Musk's StarLink. Meanwhile, Branson maintains firm rivalry with the Amazon founder, but chooses to be chummy with Musk, whom he invited to watch the Virgin Galactic space flight last week.

Wattles summed up the current headlines, saying, "The race – as much as it is one – can also be just as much about the eccentric personalities and egoism of some of the world's richest men."

CNET reporter Eric Mack also commented on how the wealth these three hold has shifted decision-making in space exploration from society to the "Space Barons," saying, "Maybe the efforts of these men and their companies will lead to profound benefits for humanity, but we could also decide as a society which ventures in space to pursue for their own sake, for our own sake."

Cover photo: IMAGO/ ZUMA Wire

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