Saturday, October 28, 2006
PC pioneer and Microsoft billionaire Charles Simonyi is apparently going to be the 5th tourist in space, a joyride that will set him back $20 million or so. If you would like to make such a trip, you can arrange it here.
As readers of this blog know, I am not particularly prone to liberal guilt, but I really wonder about the morality of dropping $20 million so you can play astronaut. For practically nothing, you can build a play space ship in your back yard out of old boxes and duct tape, have a space adventure, and still sleep in your own bed.
I also understand that space exploration may have great promise, though here I also think a lot of wishful thinking tends to go on by people who think if they get up there, maybe somehow they can be as sexually active as Robert Heinlein's heros are. But I don't think our dreams are any more likely to come true in space than they are here, however far over the rainbow it may be. And if some entrepreneur figures out space offers some great commercial opportunity, such as GPS or satellite phones, I'm all for that too.
What I do question is splurging so grotesquely on a fantasy adventure. But then I wonder, who am I to talk, really? I have splurged on family and personal adventures to an extent I could afford probably less than space tourists can afford their $20 millions. On the other hand, if we let inconsistency stop us from pointing out the flaws in others' behavior, we would have to remain silent far more than I have any intention of being.
So, consider all the things a space tourists could do with $20 million. If used for charitable purposes, it would be deductible, so call it more like $30 million. That is a lot of kids to send to college, even more to escape the gravitation of rotten public schools, and thousands of kids you could yank out of the holes they live in in Lima or Rio. You also have to wonder, suppose you could be a space tourist, but you could not tell anybody you had done it. It would remain a secret. Would any of these zillionaires still do it, for $20 million? Or would it then only be worth $5 or $1 million? A lot of it seems to be the most infantile kind of showing off your wealth. What my lovely wife Jeanne would call tacky, very tacky. The whole point is to show off your wealth only in the most subtle ways, so that you preserve a kind of deniability that you are showing off. This business of, look at me, I'm an astronaut, is of a piece with those dreadful Christmas letters, the kind, I mean, which are designed not to inspire the warm, fuzzy feelings of the season, but the bitter tang of envy, that your family is not just back from skiing at Staad, kayaking in Nepal, or catching all the latest shows in the West End. In truth, how many of us, if due to a faulty O-ring or something, Simonyi were sucked out into space, to spend the next thousand years or so orbiting the earth, could avoid yukking it up, just a little?
There are many expensive things I don't find morally objectionable. Private aviation is fine because the airlines treat us like dogs, and many of one's fellow passengers deserve little better. So that's fine. Good food and wine is celebrated in the Bible, supports important human arts, and fights depression. I approve them. Nice clothes, ditto, except for the Bible part. Anyone who thinks you should not spend money on books is a philistine, notoriously unpopular in the Bible. And of course, creating wealth through enterprise is a positive good. Perhaps space tourism falls into this latter category, but only ambiguously so. The space station is a pile of junk that probably diverts more from real progress in space than it contributes. The Russians who run this operation are probably epiphenomena of that rapidly decaying nightmare empire. It's a bit like paying $20 million to ride in a Nazi flying saucer. Cool, but those faded SS symbols would be kinda creepy.
Don't get me wrong. I would love to be a billionaire. I think it would be swell. I would get up early, log on, and just stare at all those big, constantly changing numbers in my very diversified accounts, until I got bored. But if I were to drop $20 million on an amusement ride, I would keep it a secret. I would not want everybody to know I was that selfish.