Flights of fancy: Billionaires adrift in space

Fifty-two years to the day after the Eagle landed in the Sea of Tranquility, with Neil Armstrong climbing out of the capsule and walking the surface of the moon, I watched tech billionaire Jeff Bezos soar to the skies. In the escalating race for private space travel, Virgin’s Richard Branson had launched his own test flight only nine days earlier. Oh, and you might have heard about Tesla’s Elon Musk’s SpaceX Project: he will send high-flying “space tourists” to orbit in the fall, at a cost estimated at tens of millions apiece.

If this space race feels out of this world – and completely out of touch with this moment in time – it’s because it is. What we have here is not a failure to launch but a failure to communicate.

I observed these flights of fancy with both shock and awe. I use those words deliberately because their military origin seems apropos in describing a “tactic based on the use of overwhelming power and spectacular displays of force” to destroy your enemy’s will to fight.

While in awe of the ingenuity and leap of faith required to undertake such an endeavour, I am shocked by the thinly veiled one-upmanship displayed by these so-called visionaries. Their response to this shock and awe is an aw-shucks attitude that feels more contrived than genuine.

These are smart and daring entrepreneurs who have built organizations and brands that rewrote business rules and disrupted entire industries. They provided solutions for a modern world looking for efficiency, convenience and value. They were able to articulate a vision and see it through with pinpoint accuracy.

So why am I so conflicted about the cosmic pursuit of our three “space cadets”? Is it because they have the financial means to solve more pressing global challenges here on earth? Or does the vanity coverage that resulted speak more to the celebrity culture we’ve created, where our constant need for infotainment trumps meaningful conversations about our future?

Jeff Bezos called the efforts of his rocket company, Blue Origin, “the most important work I’m doing.” As the world struggles to emerge from a crippling pandemic and keep its head (literally) above water with an ever-present climate crisis, the dissonance of that statement is jarring.

Whether you’re a tech giant or a budding entrepreneur, if you’re a business leader exploring new territory, innovating, and taking risks, what do you stand to accomplish and for what purpose? And, if there is a purpose, how are you communicating it?

Explaining your “why,” your raison-d’être, is what gives you the license to operate or, at the very least, the permission to give it your best shot.

Perhaps it’s no wonder the Merriam-Webster dictionary last year introduced a new meaning to the word “moonshot,” which refers to a project or venture that is intended to have deep-reaching or outstanding results after one heavy, consistent, and usually quick push.

Surely this type of positioning is possible for a business venture targeting the final frontier. While I wasn’t yet born to witness the moon landing in 1969, I grew up with space exploration as a beacon of humankind’s desire to reach for the stars. Its enduring appeal and ability to inspire have fueled countless scientific missions and discoveries that help us better understand our world.

Can’t they capture this spirit?

That’s certainly my hope. Otherwise, it’s just a waste of space.

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