Richard Branson and his team have been in space and have returned hugely excited to Earth. The spacecraft carrying them went up to 88 miles above the globe, which was good enough for their travellers to view the planet in its many dimensions. And now we have news that Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are readying themselves for their own journeys into space.
All these ego trips promise to be fascinating for a whole lot of people around the world, but certainly not for every inhabitant of the earth. The three men we speak of are billionaires and, as many billionaires generally are inclined to do, are on ego trips. Those journeys into space are expensive affairs, as we have known over the decades through the space travels of America's astronauts and the Soviet Union's cosmonauts. But, of course, with men who have loads of money which needs to be put to use, it is generally a question of how they mean to employ that money to enhance their ideas of their own worth.
We should be happy that Branson has been up there and Bezos and Musk will follow suit soon. But, given the state of the world at this time, a question keeps nagging us: Shouldn't all that money set aside for their space trips by these three billionaires have been put to philanthropic use here on the earth, in countries where pestilence and politics have so much been a grim reality? There is always something of the vulgar, almost obscene, when in a sea of millions of poor men, women and children a handful of individuals end up being millionaires and billionaires. But, yes, that has been the way of the world since time immemorial. That has been the human condition.
And that takes us to our next thought, in rather worrying manner. Couldn't the world benefit from the space-related affluence of these three men here on Earth? Let's face it --- there are far better ways of spending (we will not use the term 'squandering') money than travelling to the limits of the earth's atmosphere only to see how it all looks from up there. For starters, let us not forget that at this point in time the world is home to 84.2 million people who have no homes and have fallen into a state of misery that generically describes them as refugees. War, violence, bad politics, pestilence, a desperate need for a safe life away from their poverty-driven and corruption-infested countries have scattered them all across the globe.
These millions will never travel beyond the earth, indeed may not travel anywhere beyond the rickety shelters they inhabit today. The world's statesmen do not appear to have any place for them in their worldview; and when these hapless people are consumed by the sea even as they try to reach the shores of Europe on wobbly boats, little more than short-lived television footage of the way they perish comes into the bedrooms of the more fortunate ones in our world. In vast regions of Africa, bad politicians and grasping warlords have made unmitigated misery of people's lives. Myanmar's generals have turned Rohingyas into non-people. Perhaps, then, all that money expended on individual ego trips to space could have been injected into the humanitarian task of reassuring these refugees, these suddenly stateless people, that their future will not be as dark as their present?
The timing of Branson's trip causes something of pain in the heart because of what looks like insensitivity --- at a time when the world yet struggles to emerge free of the coronavirus pandemic. Infections remain high on a global scale and people die every day in every country in every continent. Perhaps Branson, Bezos and Musk could have come together in a laudable enterprise of advancing, with all their billions, a worldwide drive for vaccines to be made available to those who have been waiting for them for months? In an era of vaccine nationalism --- with countries like Canada and Britain getting hold of more vaccines than they actually need to make their people safe from the pandemic --- it is a piteous sign of realities defining Africa today. The World Health Organization (WHO) gives us the blatant, unadulterated truth: Africa is in need of 200 million vaccine doses by September this year to inoculate just 10 per cent of its population.
Africa, contrary to the old colonial characterisations of it, has never been a dark continent. And yet today its people are in the dark about their future in this relentless march of the coronavirus pandemic. And well they should be, for to date no more than one per cent of the continent's population has received vaccines for Covid-19. That's a crying shame. The irony is that the rest of the world is obviously indifferent to the plight of Africans, even as it cheers the possibility of people in future being able to travel, a la Branson, to space at the hefty sum of $250,000 per individual.
Okay, billions are good and so are billionaires. We love them. But spending all that money on space travel which may not contribute anything new to science, which indeed is no more than a celebration of individuals more fortunate than the eight billion people grounded to the earth, looks like a bit of a waste.
With 689 million people struggling through extreme poverty around the world, with 1.3 billion people suffering through multidimensional poverty in no fewer than 107 countries --- in terms of deprivations in health, education and living standards (and that is what the World Bank says), perhaps we could do something within ourselves to rein in this desire in us to embark on these ego trips beyond the earth?
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a senior journalist and writer. [email protected]