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Ralph Gardner Jr: I Want To Be Kind Of Like Jeff Bezos

The Apollo 7/Saturn IB space vehicle is launched from the Kennedy Space Center on Oct. 11, 1968
NASA on The Commons
NASA on The Commons @ Flickr Commons

Two stories about Amazon founder and Earth’s richest person Jeff Bezos recently caught my eye. One of them, by ProPublica, revealed that the megabillionaire, along with several other members of his rarefied class, paid little if any taxes in a couple of recent years. In one of them Bezos declared a loss as his wealth soared into the double-digit billions and even received a $4,000 child care tax credit. The other story that piqued my interest said he’s going to be a passenger on the first crewed spaceflight offered in July by Blue Origin, his private spaceship company. Might he have also received a Covid stimulus check that he’s using to pay for gas?

The news raised a novel philosophical question for me: do I envy him more because he, or at least his accountants, discovered how to avoid paying taxes; or because he’s going to be able to see the Earth from above, way above? I certainly don’t spite his wealth or his tax avoidance strategy. Paying as little taxes as possible is the American way. If you want to blame anybody may I direct your attention to Congress and the Supreme Court. For years, representatives and senators of both parties have been insuring their political survival by passing generous tax breaks for the superrich in exchange for the courtesy of bankrolling their campaigns and super PACS and the Court has blessed their efforts.

I’ve always wanted to go to space. Indeed, in the mid-1980’s I applied to be NASA’s first journalist in space. I didn’t think I stood a serious chance against such legendary newsmen as Walter Cronkite, another contestant. At that point in my career I was a regular contributor to Cosmo and I’d written a slender volume called Young, Gifted and Rich about successful entrepreneurs under thirty, among them Steve Jobs. Probably not the strongest of credentials among the seventeen hundred candidates agitating to go into orbit. The program was nixed completely after the Challenger disaster and the death of Christa McAuliffe, the first civilian to fly into space.

Somewhere I have NASA’s application materials and the handsome space-age folder they came in. What I’ve lost, to my everlasting regret, is an official looking certificate that NASA sent me along with my rejection letter. It praised my interest in the cosmos and the agency’s mission, if memory serves me correctly; I wasn’t able to admire it for very long, let alone have it framed, before it went missing.

Based on tragedies such as the Challenger accident, not to mention my increasingly advanced age, these days I have no desire to be the first anything in space. My current goal is to be somewhere around the 50,000th. Mr. Bozos certainly deserves to be on the inaugural flight – he’s nicely taking his brother along, too – since he’s safely sunk billions of his own money into the project. But I’d want to get the kinks out first. I guess it’s about bragging rights. He wants to beat fellow billionaires and rival space company founders Richard Branson and Elon Musk into orbit.

Also, the price point isn’t quite right. I’m not prepared to pay millions for the privilege of looking down at my apartment from a great distance. I’m assuming the cost will come down over time – it usually does whether you’re talking about airfare, dishwashers or TVs. To me a fair price, even though it would blow my budget, would be around ten thousand bucks.

Besides, even though this risks sounding like sour grapes Jeff Bezos isn’t going to get that far off the ground. Only about 62 miles. The International Space station floats 250 miles above Earth. Ideally, for my money I’d like to experience the planet’s blue marble effect and that would probably require going halfway to the Moon. But I suppose any vehicle that takes you to the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space – said to be around fifty miles above sea level – is pretty cool. I’d like to be blown away by the random miracle of creation and the planet’s heartbreaking fragility. Is that too much to ask?

Back in 2008 I spent an evening partying and playing pool with Sam Branson, son of Richard, the founder of Virgin Galactic. It was for a New York Times Style section story. These pieces typically have a non-profit promoting paragraph or two so as not to seem totally cheesy and voyeuristic. In Sam’s case it was because he was about to embark on a 60-day, 1,400 mile sled-dog expedition across the Canadian Arctic to raise awareness about the perils of global warming.

I don’t know how the journey turned out -- I can’t recall whether I heard from him after the piece was published or not -- though the Virgin website describes it as a “pinnacle moment” in his life. Perhaps for the small role I played in promoting that mission the Bransons could see their way to bumping me up a few places on their 8,000-person spaceship waiting list and give me a radical break on the reported $250,000 space fare.

I wonder whether tickets come with those first class amenity kits with the toothpaste and moisturizer and perhaps fuzzy socks for floating upside down during four to five minutes of weightlessness? Also, I’m assuming everybody gets a window seat. It would be a heck of a disappointment after all that expense and buildup if they sat you on the aisle.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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