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Space Odyssey, the Billionaire Edition

Space is having a moment, but why?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

How have I spent the last 30 minutes? Great question. Thanks for asking. I’ve spent it trying to figure out whether I can open this column with the sentence “space is having a moment” without making a mockery of the laws of physics. On the one hand, space—meaning outer space, NASA space, George Clooney–tumbling-into-the-void-in-his-little-air-puff-seat-in-Gravity space—has been in the news a lot lately, which constitutes “a moment” in the parlance of our times. On the other hand, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity posits that space and time are intermeshed in a single continuum and cannot be understood as separate entities. How can space have “a moment” if space is already implied by the very concept of the time interval itself, i.e., if space has all the moments? To find a solution to this tricky writing problem, I embarked, for about 27.5 minutes, upon the most grueling and heroic form of internet quest: the one in which your Google searches keep returning Quora links.

Seeing no alternative, I clicked on one. Quora wanted me to prove I was 13. Fine. The fabric of space-time isn’t appropriate for 12-year-olds. But how, I silently screamed into the void, can I prove how old I am if you don’t even ask how fast I’m going? What if I was 11, but spent the ages between 5 and 9 moving at the speed of light?

After an epic struggle (of entering my birthday and clicking “submit”), I finally got through. The question was like, “What’s a basic, layman’s explanation of the relationship of space and time?” Here’s how I remember the top answer:

“Well, to put it as simply as possible, [6 million incomprehensible words]. Hope that helped!”

Quora was clearly going to be of no use to me. I turned to Wikipedia. After reading a slew of articles about time dilation, inertial frames, and converse Poincaré-type inequalities for convex functions, I finally managed to grasp one essential truth: I am not smart at all. The time had come to look to an authority beyond Einstein, beyond online encyclopedias, beyond even viral web comics with two stick figures explaining infinity while holding hands. There was only one power that could help me resolve my confusion and start my column. The (space-)time had come to look to Skittles.

Specifically, the time had come to look to Zero-G Skittles, a limited edition of the iconic candy/objectively greatest human foodstuff that launched (hahaha) on July 22. Zero-G Skittles were announced to commemorate the first trip by a pack of Skittles into space. The first trip by a pack of Skittles into space happened on July 20, just 48 hours before Zero-G Skittles came out to commemorate it, because these days Quora-curious tweens aren’t the only ones living at the speed of light.

Skittles went to space because Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and Extreme Billionaire, took some with him when he went into space, an event which, assuming you don’t live in space yourself, you’ve probably heard about. Apparently he playfully threw some Skittles at his fellow pretend-astronauts when they passed into zero gravity. Normally the thought of Jeff Bezos playfully throwing something at me would make me playfully reach for my machete, but I take my Skittles however they come to me, even in a game of interstellar Boar on the Floor. “How was your day?” someone would ask me after I had flown to space with the world’s richest man and had candy flung at me by him in an orbital dominance ritual. “Amazing!” I’d say. “I had Skittles!”

Zero-G Skittles come in a shiny foil bag, a nod to classic astronaut food packets. They are “guaranteed to actually float while in space,” according to the astrophysics department at Caltech—no, sorry, I mean the Skittles Twitter account. Hm, I thought, reading a hype article about the release on packagingstrategies.com, if Skittles is going all out to associate itself with space, then it must be safe to say that space is trending right now. A lifeless void of unimaginable darkness and silence might be a natural brand partner for a billionaire, but a candy doesn’t seek out those associations unless it knows they’re getting faved.

What other evidence is there that we’re currently living through a Summer of Space? Take a trip through this wormhole:

Billionaires love it. It’s not just Bezos. OK, it’s mostly Bezos. Richard Branson, the Virgin Group mogul, also says he went to space this summer. But his Virgin Galactic craft did not cross the Kármán line, the semi-arbitrary threshold 62 miles above the surface of the earth where “outer space” is generally said to begin. Branson’s ship made it only about 50 miles above the earth, which is where the U.S. government says space begins. Apparently there’s a very weird 12-mile belt where you’re sort of in space and sort of not in space. Richard Branson went to space-ish. In my opinion, America should have higher standards.

Also, Richard Branson is someone who seems to want a lot of attention (has swoopy hair, grins at cameras, talks a lot about going to space), yet he is also someone whose existence I absolutely cannot remember when he is not directly in front of me. Theory: No one actually knows who Richard Branson is, but we all think we’re the only person who doesn’t. Why is he so rich? I have no idea. Bezos seems like a more credible fake vanity astronaut because (a) he crossed the Kármán line (unambiguously went to space), (b) he tasted the rainbow off-planet (food hijinks are an integral aspect of the astronaut mythos), and (c) he’s important for reasons absolutely everyone understands (founded a company that was unprofitable for the first nine years of its existence).

Still, Branson’s eagerness to stand on his tiptoes in the upper stratosphere confirms that space flight is the super-rich-guy thing du jour. For most of us, outer space is essentially a metaphor, something we apply imaginatively to our own lives but will never experience firsthand. If you’re rich enough, though, you can just try to go to space. It’s like buying a sports team versus closing your eyes and picturing the long 3 you’d swish to win the NBA Finals. Rich guys love turning metaphors into experiences; this is why Jurassic Park is a more believable movie than Jaws.

Aliens might be living in it. The other top space news of the summer was the U.S. government finally releasing its big UFO report to Congress. This report, which bears the poetic title “Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena,” was anticipated in some quarters as an X-Files-style reckoning with decades of post-Roswell cover-ups. Instead, it turned out to be … kind of chill, in the end? It basically said, “Hi! We are the U.S. government. We are aware of the existence of unidentified flying objects. Wish we could tell you what they are. Can’t. Why? Because that’s what the word ‘unidentified’ means, Phil. Look it up. No, seriously, look it up. Also, space starts 50 miles above the ground.”

The report acknowledged that American military pilots have reported unexplained lights and mysterious aerial phenomena over the years, but it did not ascribe those phenomena to alien activity. It did not ascribe them to anything. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the title character (Hamlet) says, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” If the UFO report had been a character in Hamlet, it would have been like, “Are there? Maybe!”

Still, after decades of redacted documents and evasion and silence, the fact that the government was talking about UFOs at all was a relief to many people. Imagine you’ve spent a long car ride fighting with your boyfriend about this bizarre thing you saw, and he kept inventing more and more ridiculous explanations for how it was probably just a weather balloon, and you were like “WEATHER BALLOONS DON’T MAKE COWS LEVITATE, DARREN,” and he refused to give an inch, and then, at the last second, as you pulled into the driveway, he muttered, “OK, fine, maybe it wasn’t a weather balloon.” Now imagine that the car ride started in 1947 and you’ll have some idea how the report might have looked to the UFO community.

Many people think they can make money out of it. Probably my favorite news story of the summer was this July 25 Wall Street Journal article called “A Space Company’s Wall Street Launch Misfires,” which detailed how a fledgling space-transportation company called Momentus had tried to drum up cash without mentioning to investors that it had absolutely no ability to transport anything in space and possibly could not even move a sofa across Cleveland. Here’s the first sentence of the article:

A space-transportation company trying to go public didn’t tell potential investors that its satellite-hauling technology failed, that it lost contact with a satellite in space and that its Russian founder had been deemed a national-security risk by the U.S. government, the Securities and Exchange Commission said.

Oh, is that all??? “Also, everyone who worked for the company had explosive hands, and everything they touched exploded.” But the Momentus saga was oddly fitting at a moment when companies both legitimate and super-illegitimate have been trying to figure out how to monetize space, an environment so hostile and difficult to reach that even billionaires cannot reliably do it. Companies are working on asteroid mining. Space-tourism companies, including both Bezos’s Blue Origin and Branson’s Virgin Galactic, are working on blasting cruise ships into lunar orbit. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is launching rockets, occasionally without exploding them. (Tesla wishes.) SpaceX’s contract with NASA was just upheld by the Government Accountability Office after being challenged by Blue Origin. Space is generating a low-level economic burble that’s perceptible in the cultural ether. It’s like bitcoin, but it actually exists.

What is it about space that seems to resonate with our current zeitgeist? If I were a cultural critic—rather than, say, a man who is about to try to expense a pack of Zero-G Skittles because of “research”—I would probably speculate that space crystallizes both freedom and isolation in a way that chimes with our experience of the pandemic. On the one hand: the promise of infinite vistas, strange new planets, an open expanse stretching forever in every direction; this is how the world looked to me at the start of the summer, when I emerged, vaccinated and blinking, and said, “Maybe I will go see a Fast & Furious movie.” On the other hand: the terrible fragility of life sealed off behind special masks and suits, the loneliness of unfathomable removal from other human beings, the sense of enduring indefinitely in cramped indoor spaces; this also seems to vaguely ring a bell from my experience of the past 18 months.

Well, who knows. Probably if Jeff Bezos had gotten into bullfighting, Skittles would have released a Spicy Matador edition, and I’d be out here going, “The flowing dance of death with the bull’s fateful horns speaks to everyone who bought tickets to see their grandparents before delta hit.” Still, though. When we can’t afford experiences, we fall back on metaphors. And most of the time, when we talk about the final frontier, what we’re actually talking about is something closer to home.