Trickle-Up Spaceflight

Last week, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s recently retired CEO and the wealthiest human on the planet, decided to treat himself to an extraordinary journey beyond the Karman Line, and therefore outside of Earth’s atmosphere to the very edge of space. He made the trip atop a giant space penis—pardon me, rocket—called “New Shepard,” built by Bezos’ own space tourism company, Blue Origin. 

Many observers called it a stunt—the ultimate ego trip, if you will. True, it cost hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars, and contributed mightily to Amazon and Blue Origin’s carbon footprint, which Bezos and friends, at least theoretically, seem to feel strongly about reducing.

On the other hand, Bezos appears to believe he mitigated his detestable swaggerhe bestrode his rocket while sporting a cowboy hat—by mixing it with generous amounts of self-abasement and cloying wokeness.

Bezos quickly agreed with suggestions that trips like his represent “joyrides for the wealthy,” which distract us from more pressing tasks here on Earth. He also made sure to share his capsule with an octogenarian woman who allegedly was denied the opportunity to become an astronaut in the 1960s because of her sex. 

The cherry on top of Bezos’ apology/self-justification tour came after the 11-minute flight, when he lavished $100 million checks on one black and one Hispanic activist, to spend on the charities of their choice. The whole performance practically screamed, “Look at me! I’m so rich I can go wherever I like . . . but I’m also ever so kind-hearted and progressive, so it’s cool. Really!”

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A Heavily Subsidized Venture

Whatever one may think of the symbolism and messaging associated with Bezos’ flight to the stars, or of the massive resources that were required to make it happen, one thing is certain: none of it would have come to pass were it not for ordinary folks like you and me, who made Bezos obscenely rich in the first place. Bezos acknowledged as much when he declared on the day of the historic voyage, “I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all of this. Seriously . . . thank you from the bottom of my heart very much. It’s very appreciated.”

What Bezos didn’t mention, however, was that a huge portion of his wealth constitutes ill-gotten gains. 

Amazon and its sister companies have benefited from billions in tax breaks and subsidies, flowing mostly from cash-strapped state and local governments. Bezos himself barely pays taxes at all. 

Bezos’ buddies in Congress meanwhile work feverishly to steer lucrative, multi-billion-dollar contracts in Amazon’s or Blue Origin’s direction. And this is despite the glacial pace at which Blue Origin is completing its massive contract to provide BE-4 rocket engines to the government. Eric Berger, the senior space editor for Ars Technica, reports that, after five years, Bezos’ company has only completed nine engines and has put not a single one on the test stand.

“The Biggest Wealth Transfer in History”

Most revolting is the way that Amazon has profited from the pain that Americans (and people throughout the world) have experienced during the pandemic. 

Governments have pursued policies, as we all know, that keep people imprisoned in their homes for long periods of time—lockdowns, in other words—that have the perverse economic effect of shuttering millions of small businesses, while online retailers like Amazon see sales and profits skyrocket. Bezos himself is tens of billions of dollars richer—80 percent richer, overall—not in spite of COVID-19, but because of it. His employees, meanwhile, in many cases, are among the most exposed to the risks of pandemic-related sickness, but their wages during the pandemic were essentially flat even as Amazon’s stock price surged 70 percent. 

As Amazon rakes it in, moreover, many of Bezos’ most valued and loyal customers, ironically, are the very people his retailing behemoth is driving out of business and into the ranks of the unemployed. 

The pandemic unleashed what has justifiably been called the “biggest wealth transfer in history.” No one has benefited more from it than Jeff Bezos.

So kudos to Bezos for achieving a lifelong goal and for making space exploration a little more accessible to ordinary mortals, i.e. non-astronauts. But shame on him for ascending the ladder of success, and for climbing the ladder to the stars, at the expense of, and with callous disregard for, his fellow man.

Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, and its spectacular rocket, “New Shepard,” are much to be admired. Bezos the man is a different story.


About Nicholas L. Waddy

Dr. Nicholas L. Waddy is an Associate Professor of History at SUNY Alfred and blogs at: He appears on the Newsmaker Show on WLEA 1480/106.9.

Photo: Blue Origin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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