Project Description

As the World Burns, Billionaires Race to Space

for Sierra magazine

Last week, billionaire Richard Branson soared high above the earth in a rocket, to the edge of space. The flight marked the launch of the commercial space travel that Branson’s company Virgin Galactic plans to begin offering next year, setting off what he calls “the dawn of a new space age.” On Virgin Galactic’s global livestream of Branson’s flight, red-hot streaks of rocket propellant blasted from the engines against the blue sky over New Mexico. The mood was one of levity. Like the Cold War moon landing, as a public spectacle it brimmed with hopeful possibility and served as a demonstration of what we are capable of when we direct our resources and imagination toward a goal. A montage advertised the Virgin Group (Galactic is just one of some 400 companies that Branson owns), and a voiceover intoned, “If we can do this, imagine what else we can do.”

Two days earlier, Death Valley reached 130 degrees Fahrenheit, the hottest temperature on Earth ever recorded. More than 31 million American people who were not floating giddily in space were under heat advisories, in the third major heat wave of the summer. The associate director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, Friederike Otto, told The Guardian, “This is by far the largest jump [in temperature] in the record I have ever seen,” a statement that echoed Neil Armstrong’s “one giant leap for mankind.” If we were seeing the dawn of a new space age, we were also seeing the dawn of a much hotter Earth—and traveling in rockets is arguably the most carbon-spewing thing an individual can do.

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