The importance of the crazy rich guys spending their cash on silly things

LAST month, billionaire Jeff Bezos and three friends flew to the edge of space in the first crewed mission of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket.

The Amazon founder created the Blue Origin Aerospace company in the year 2000 in a bid to advance the field of spaceflight, and his brief adventure to the top of the world was the first time they had sent human beings into, literally, the stratosphere.

A week earlier, billionaire Richard Branson, of Virgin fame, and three of his friends did something very similar – though aboard the very different concept VSS Unity space ‘plane’ – launched from a spaceport in the New Mexico desert.

And while he hasn’t ridden one of his own rockets yet, fellow billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX continue to set new benchmarks in the world of reusable space vehicles and will soon launch their first iteration of ‘Starship’, a reusable rocket that the company hopes will eventually take humans to Mars.

As a lover of all things space, it’s an enormously exciting time as three separate, privately owned businesses compete to advance the cause of slipping the surely bonds of Earth.

The last time the cause was advanced this far, this quickly, the Americans and the Russians were seeing who could get to the Moon first without nuking each other in the process. 

There are plenty of similarities between all three adventures, not the least of which is the fact all three have been condemned by sections of the media and the internet for ‘wasting their billions’ on ‘vanity projects’.

Some argue that rather than spending their money on space rockets, they could be feeding the poor, re-homing the homeless or fixing climate change.

I disagree.

Aside from the fact that these people are perfectly entitled to spend their billions however they want, the world desperately needs people like Musk, Branson and Bezos spending their money on what in some instances seem, frankly, ridiculous causes. Because, who else is going to do it?

Sure, Governments are still spending money on spaceflight and NASA, in particular, and the Chinese are both pushing hard with interplanetary probes and plots to get back to the Moon.

But nations have so many other things to worry about these days that they could be forgiven for not exactly recreating JFK’s ‘Not because it’s easy, because it’s hard’ ethos of the 1960s.

And there’s nothing like commercial businesses going head-to-head to advance a cause quickly, especially if it means they can make a buck or three at the end.

The US Government has already endowed SpaceX with billions of dollars in projects so clearly they’re right on board with that as a concept, too, because unlike most things, in the world of spaceflight it is absolutely cheaper to pay someone to do it rather than doing it yourself.

I think what SpaceX is doing is phenomenal. I don’t buy into the Tesla craze in the slightest, but I can totally get behind what Musk is doing with his other venture. Have you seen the video where they land a pair of rocket boosters, under their own power, on a pair of landing pads side-by-side having just blasted a crewed rocket up to the International Space Station? It’s utterly captivating. I’ve watched it a thousand times and to this day find it nearly as incredible as the first Saturn V that took men to the Moon.

What SpaceX has achieved in such a short amount of time is quite extraordinary and as yet has not been matched by any national space authority around the world. None of it would have happened had Elon Musk decided to tip much of his fortune into what could have been an enormous folly.

What’s more, SpaceX now employs nearly 10,000 people – all earning a wage, feeding their families and contributing to the economy. Bill Gates is doing his thing to feed the third world – why can’t people be happy with Elon contributing to the employment and financial security of nearly 100,000 (between all his businesses) people?

It’s easy to quip that he could be spending his Billions on, say, fixing Global Warming – but what if it’s unfixable? What if the entire planet will become more akin to the Sahara in 100 years or so? If that’s the case, I’ll be looking for a rocket to Neptune – where the -200C temperatures will be a pleasant change for the occasional holiday – and I don’t see NASA coming up with one of those before Musk can.

I honestly don’t get the hate towards these people. Okay, their ethical standards in how they pay employees may be slightly wobbly, and they may have gone broke here or there and come out unscathed, and they may be prone to saying stupid things on social media. And I’m not saying you have to like them as people.

Amazon may indeed be terrible to work for, but on the flipside they still employ 1.2 million people more than most other companies in the world.

What would they be doing if they didn’t work long hours shipping me my many and often internet shopping purchases? But I’d rather someone like Jeff Bezos was sinking his Billions into a space rocket that might result in us becoming an interplanetary species, than, say, becoming a bond villain and taking over half the world.

Of course, and I am finally getting to the point here, those in motorsport should feel a similar way because our entire sport hinges on cashed-up people spending stupid amounts of money on stupid things that, in reality, change the world far less than a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket can. 

But thank god they do; for without them we would be without things like The Bend Motorsport Park. Or a full field of GT3 cars tackling the Bathurst 12 Hour. Or the Triple Eight vs DJR Supercars rivalry. Or old F1 cars. Or new F1 cars, for that matter.

There’s plenty of money in motorsport, yes, but it’s not a particularly sensible business to be involved in should you be looking for a return and yet, people continue to spend millions and millions on it each year.

And like Musk, Beardy and Bezos it’s easy to criticise that, too, until you remember the side effects of employing thousands of people and entertaining many more, you and I included, each year. 

What’s more, every now and then the sport comes up with a real breakthrough – witness McLaren’s advancement of the Carbon Fibre cause in the 1980s, or the relentless development of hybrid technology in modern F1 – that really does change the world beyond just getting the checkered flag first. 

Like competition in businesses between billionaires, competition in sport really does improve the breed.

In the same way that the modern iteration of the space race that’s currently underway wouldn’t exist without a group of Billionaires all trying to outcool each other, most of our sport would grind to a halt if it wasn’t for a slightly less wealthy group of people trying to beat each other in racing cars.

There are many fantastic people spending their time, expertise and money on saving the world – but that world isn’t worth saving if there’s not a group of equally driven people spending their time, expertise and money on giving it a future worth looking forward to experiencing in the first place.

Or, more rather more simply, spend a large amount of money running racing cars around a racetrack so my colleagues and I can earn a modest but perfectly acceptable wage writing and talking about them.

Both can be life changing things to do; just at a slightly different level of impact. But in reality they’re actually not that different after all.

Working full time in the motorsport industry since 2004, Richard has established himself within the group of Australia’s core motorsport broadcasters, covering the support card at the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix for Channel 10, the Bathurst 12 Hour for Channel 7 and RadioLeMans plus Porsche Carrera Cup & Touring Car Masters for FOX Sports’ Supercars coverage. Works a PR bloke for several teams and categories, is an amateur motorsport photographer and owns five cars, most of them Holdens, of varying vintage and state of disrepair.

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  1. Wayne

    I get where you’re coming from with these space cowboys but I still find it all a bit irksome, especially Bezos and his space willy with the play centre on top. Kudos to the guy for risking his life to prove the reliability of his products, they still go bang often enough not to take it for granted. It’s easy to criticise people for spending money on toys but we all do it. I just spent $400 on a sim wheel & pedal set – how many third world kids could that feed? Not as many as GT3 money for sure, but it all adds up. Don’t get your hopes up for an interplanetary relocation. Mars is probably our best hope but it’s not pretty. It’ll be a like a terrarium in the desert. I think we’ll eventually be sending our DNA out in to space to be replicated on a planet at the @rse end of nowhere a thousand years from now. Unfortunately the starship Enterprise is still nowhere in sight.