The False Nobility of Space Billionaires
How Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are Commercializing the Space Race
The future is vastly more exciting and interesting if we’re a space-faring civilization and multiplanetary species than if we’re not… You want to wake up in the morning and think, “The future’s gonna be great.”
–Elon Musk, addressing the International Astronautical Congress in September 2017
There ain’t a space program for n*ggas
Yeah, you stuck here, n*gga.
–Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, “The Space Program”
The privatization of human space flight over the past two decades is sometimes called the Billionaire Space Race. This has shifted responsibility from publicly-funded space agencies to corporations like Boeing and Lockheed Martin and private ventures owned by billionaires. As some of these billionaires are associated with the tech sector, the race is also referred to as Space 2.0. Some of their ventures are working towards launching wealthy tourists into low earth orbit, or to commercializing space transportation. All of the billionaires claim their endeavors are in the spirit of adventure and exploration on behalf of humanity. They believe their ambitions to be noble.
The most intense competition in the Billionaire Space Race is between companies owned by Elon Musk (net worth: $19.2 billion) and Jeff Bezos (net worth: $119 billion), Amazon founder and the richest man in the world. Blue Origin receives around one billion dollars each year from the billionaire Jeff Bezos, who has short-term ambitions to blast tourists into orbit, and long-term ambitions to commercialize space and build a permanent human settlement on the poles of the Moon.
The billionaire Elon Musk made his fortune with online payment provider PayPal and also owns SpaceX, a company that has developed reusable rockets to launch satellites and supply the International Space Station, and is working towards establishing a human colony on Mars. The company aims to have the first cargo on Mars by 2022 and one million people living there within the next century. The publicly-funded space agency NASA provided several hundred million dollars to SpaceX to develop its first rockets. In February 2018 SpaceX successfully sent its first partially-reusable Falcon Heavy rocket towards Mars. This model will mostly be used to launch large spy satellites for the US Military.
The move into space—especially Mars—will almost certainly end in death for the astronauts involved. Neither the billionaire Elon Musk or the billionaire Jeff Bezos have committed to undertaking this dangerous journey.
Jan 9, 2020: Niko didn’t miss a beat when I wandered into his opal shop and said I was looking to rent somewhere secluded. “It’s your lucky day today mate, you don’t know what you’ve struck,” he said. Twenty minutes later we were below ground and he was performing intimidating bug-eyes about jealous locals and making me promise not to tell anyone about the location. I didn’t know how safe I was with this stranger, I just knew I was out of the Coober Pedy heat, where surface temperatures had climbed above 47 degrees a few days earlier.
Nearly everyone in Coober Pedy lives underground in “dugout” homes carved from the opal-bearing sandstone that has made the town famous. “It is very cool and beautiful down here . . . cool and beautiful,” Niko said when we stepped inside. His dugout was empty of everything but dust but, size-wise, the place was outstanding—just what I had in mind. Arched tunnels, drilled by industrial machinery, branched off in all directions from a crystal-domed foyer big enough to drive a truck through.
A pillar of sunlight shone down through a hole in the roof, illuminating a group of rooms on what Niko kept calling the “mezzanine floor.” As we headed deeper, he was most excited to show me the opal fragments embedded in the wall.
“See that? That’s part of an opalized clam shell in the ground,” he said, running his hands along the sparkling wall. “There’s more in there, see? In the bedroom.” He pointed his flashlight into a room containing nothing except a racing car bed. Beyond that was an en suite and a kitchenette with pipes that rose through 20 feet of hardrock to the surface. A red streak running along the white sandstone indicated a particularly rich vein of opals. They looked like cave paintings. Niko told me he wanted to name the markings “Halley’s Comet.”
Niko said he hoped this would one day be his family home and I tried to appear understanding. When someone mentions their family might be prepared to live 20 feet underground, in a hollowed-out former mine with sand for floors, you don’t really ask any follow-up questions. It seems rude.
We came around a corner and found a pile of trash and charred firewood. “Ah, fuck me,” Niko said, jabbing his flashlight towards the small camp.
“This is why I don’t tell any locals about this place—people have that jealous thing.” We paused there for a moment before he spoke again: “It’s very hard when you have something special and you have to sort of try and protect it.”
He looked disappointed when I told him this would not do. But I hadn’t driven nine hours from the nearest major city, into the heart of the Australian desert, just to have company; I came for the isolation, and, with a launch deadline set for a few weeks, I had very little time to spare. Vandals breaking in and pissing on the floor would break the illusion of solitude and interplanetary distance.
I wished Niko luck and climbed out of the dark mine into the sunlight above.
Amount by which Jeff Bezos’s net worth increased the day after the launch of Amazon Go, a cashierless store: $2,800,000,000
Rank of cashier among the most common US jobs: 2
–Harper’s Magazine Index, April 2018
There are 2,208 billionaires in the world according to Forbes Magazine. Roughly ten percent of these billionaires are women. One of the most exclusive clubs for billionaires to join is among the owners of the 30 teams that comprise the National Basketball Association. The NBA is a global brand that requires the bodily and spiritual sacrifice of tens of thousands of athletes each year. Most of these athletes are poor and black Americans. Shortly before he sold his NBA team for two billion dollars in 2014, property mogul and billionaire Donald Sterling suggested his Los Angeles Clippers should work on a “Southern Plantation–type structure” and brought women into the locker room after games to watch his players shower, where he would say things like “look at those beautiful black bodies.” Others, like Dallas Mavericks owner and billionaire Mark Cuban, cultivate a friendly relationship with the players, such that he describes himself as “kind of a players’ owner.” The Portland Trail Blazers’ billionaire owner Paul Allen has a yacht equipped with two submarines and a music studio.
“Eight billionaires now own as much wealth as half the human race, Oxfam has found.”
The billionaire Paul Allen made his fortune by co-founding Microsoft with Bill Gates, another billionaire and former richest person in the world. Microsoft is a computing firm that requires the bodily and spiritual sacrifice of thousands of factory workers each year. Most of these workers are poor and Chinese. The billionaire Paul Allen also owns Vulcan Aerospace, a company with ambitions of commercializing low-earth orbit transportation. He wants to go to space because he cares very deeply about humanity and expanding “the horizons of human possibility.” There are five other billionaires commonly mentioned in the Space 2.0 ownership club.
The billionaire Richard Branson (net worth: $5 billion) owns various businesses under the Virgin brand, including music publishing, aviation, banking and telecommunications. Virgin Galactic is the name of his company aiming to fly wealthy tourists into suborbit on a reusable spacecraft. Virgin Galactic is not the name of an Age of Aquarius Bond girl.
SpaceX founder and billionaire Elon Musk also owns an electric car manufacturer named Tesla. In 2015, Tesla factory workers were seriously injured at a rate more than twice the industry average. “Everything feels like the future but us,” one told the Guardian. The billionaire Elon Musk has opposed their efforts to unionize. In an email, he said workers would instead have free frozen yogurt stands scattered through the Tesla complex. The workers would also get a roller coaster with an “optional loop the loop” to take them from the carpark to their stations every day. “It’s going to get crazy good,” the billionaire Elon Musk wrote in an email leaked to Buzzfeed.
Eight billionaires now own as much wealth as half the human race, Oxfam has found. Nine years ago, that number was 388 billionaires. Things had gotten so bad for the people who aren’t billionaires that US economists had started referring to rising mortality rates among Americans—especially from suicide and drug addiction—as “Deaths of Despair.” Overall life expectancy fell for two consecutive years for the first time in 50 years. Things were not all bad, according to a UBS report on high-net-worth individuals, as popular anger at rampant inequality had convinced the mega-rich to open more public art galleries. This makes sense when you consider billionaires now account for 72 of the world’s 200 top art collectors, up from 28 in 1995. Another reason things had never been better was that modern capitalism had provided material comforts and access to digital soapboxes that gave ordinary people a voice. They had been gifted technology that would allow them to become the masters of their own destiny. Their voices became content that generated advertising revenue for companies owned by tech billionaires.
The 21st century has been labelled the new Gilded Age. The first Gilded Age lasted the final decades before the 20th century, when US industrialists in steel, rail, oil and real estate accumulated so much wealth they became some of the richest humans in history. Although these so-called “robber barons” were active philanthropists who built many libraries, hospitals and museums, they also lived at a time when the richest two percent of American households owned a third of the nation’s wealth. This disparity lead to much popular anger and some violence. However, ordinary people of the first Gilded Age were even less fortunate than their successors as they were without products made in Silicon Valley with which to empower themselves.
Environmental philanthropy as a branding exercise to distract from bad corporate behavior is known as greenwashing. Breast cancer or LGBTI-friendly branding is known as pinkwashing. The term for space exploration as philanthropy has not yet been invented.
Jan 11, 2020: Climbing to the highest point in Coober Pedy opened up a view of thousands of long shadows cast from the sand piles shovelled from old opal mines. They were only a fraction of the one million mine holes that routinely claimed the lives of unsuspecting tourists or careless miners who took a wrong step and fell to their deaths. According to locals, all the trees on the opal fields were long ago chopped down for firewood. It was like standing on the surface of the Moon.
It had taken me a long time to accept the idea that this whole area was once underwater. It only clicked after I saw the kinds of opal fossils for sale along the main street: clams, razorfish, cuttlefish, shark teeth, the golden spiral of a nautilus shell. Twenty years ago, a pair of tourists found an opalized baby plesiosaur skeleton. It’s still hanging in the South Australian museum.
In the local tourist mine, I’d watched a tinted 80s educational video that detailed how Coober Pedy was gifted this opal bounty, one that has yielded 90 percent of the world’s supply. The video explained that the shallow and muddy Eromanga Sea once covered 60 percent of the Australian interior, and when it dried up 100 million years ago all the plesiosaurs and creatures buried in the sediment of the seafloor turned into opals. This is why there is still a strange aquatic spirit here, despite the nearest ocean being 600 kilometers away.
The only other place in the solar system you’ll find this geology is on Mars. Five years ago, the Mars Rover Spirit discovered opalized silica among crushed rocks on the surface. Researchers later detected traces of fire opal within a Martian meteor that had lain in a vault since falling in Egypt in 1911 and vaporizing a street dog. These discoveries confirmed what scientists had suspected for some time: that opals on Mars are a remnant of what was once a planetary ocean.
Despite my setback with Niko, I was still convinced that finding the right dugout would make my task easier. I could go underground for a few weeks and emerge mentally fortified for the longer test ahead. A dugout couldn’t prepare me fully for being sealed in a habitat with five other strangers, but it would have opals: beautified death, the remains of evaporated oceans and extinct creatures turned crystalline.
. . . [Elon] was constantly remarking on the ways he found me lacking. “I am your wife,” I told him repeatedly, “not your employee.”
“If you were my employee,” he said just as often, “I would fire you.”
–Justine Musk, Elon’s first wife, following their divorce in 2008
Tests of human endurance in prolonged periods of isolation have been held in Mars-simulated environments around the world. “Astronauts” recently roamed the surrounds of the Dhofar desert in Oman on quad bikes, wearing puffy silver spacesuits during a month-long experiment. In November 2014, a team of scientists emerged from eight months within an isolation dome inside a Hawaiian volcano crater, cut-off from all outside contact except for a “ground control” link on a 20-minute delay. “I feel like a ghost,” one said after stepping out of the capsule.
The longest-ever isolation experiment was the Mars500 project, which sealed six astronauts inside metal tubes at a research base in Russia for 520 days. A test project conducted ten years earlier ended in a fistfight between two Russians, and the crew commander forcibly kissing a female volunteer at a New Year’s Eve party one month into the mission. She complained and was told her attitude was ruining the project. A Japanese participant quit in protest. The female volunteer later got head lice. The Russians solved this problem the next time around by omitting women from the isolation crew entirely.
One in five people undertaking a computer science degree in the US are female. When they graduate, they might look for work with companies in Silicon Valley, the largest of which have the following proportions of female technical staff: 17 percent at Google, 10 percent at Twitter, 15 percent at Facebook, and 20 percent at Apple. One of Amazon’s top 18 executives is a woman.
“Silicon Valley is a district of San Francisco where you can claim to be saving humanity by fully excluding one half of it.”
Silicon Valley is an industrial district of the San Francisco Bay Area, associated with the tech industry, that ranks first in California for wealth inequality and is commonly seen as the global leader in innovation and developing technology that benefits humanity. Silicon Valley is a district founded on the myth that success is determined by greatness and innate genius—what you might call Jobsian brilliance. A 2015 report published in Science found that fields with this illusion tend to be problematic for women, owing to a stubborn assumption that genius is a male trait.
Some of the highest female representation in Silicon Valley can be found at clandestine sex parties held at the homes of wealthy entrepreneurs. The hosts of these parties, as detailed in Brotopia by US journalist Emily Chang, encourage female tech workers to take drugs, loosen their inhibitions and engage in enlightened sexual behavior to push “the boundaries of social mores and values.” The enlightened sexual behavior mostly takes the form of male hetero fantasies. The female-to-male guest ratio is fixed at 2:1. Some female tech workers say sexual liberation and non-monogamy in Silicon Valley is a ruse to justify some of the biggest male egos in history using their new money and power to fulfill teenage sexual frustrations. In another district, these men would be known as fuckbois. “I honestly think what they want is a do-over because women wouldn’t bone them until now,” one female tech worker said to Chang. Elon Musk has confirmed, via a representative, that he attended one of these parties, but said he did not witness any sex. Instead, Musk spoke with other entrepreneurs about “technology and building companies,” a favorite topic among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
Another favorite topic among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs involved in the space industry is making comic references to the design of their large, multi-planet rockets. These jokes allude to the fact that the shape of a typical rocket strongly resembles the shape of the human male penis, albeit a very large one. The jokes also highlight that some aerospace terms are also common slang for human male reproductive functions: loads, thrust, going erect for launch. “Or is it more about the way you use it?” the billionaire Elon Musk tweeted on June 6, 2017, in response to a question about the size of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Silicon Valley is a district where aerospace enthusiasts make jokes that conjure an image of fuckbois loaded like sperm inside giant phallic rockets destined to fertilize the red ovum of Mars. These jokes bring occasional light-hearted relief to the serious nature of noble spaceflight.
Silicon Valley is a district of San Francisco where you can claim to be saving humanity by fully excluding one half of it.
Jan 21, 2020: The reading we had been given as preparation explained that volunteers exposed to long-term isolation tended to experience psychological states akin to those found in “space-analogue environments” like oil rigs, submarines and polar stations. Being trapped in a group setting with no prospect of relief did strange things to these people—they lost track of time, imagined the gruesome deaths of their colleagues, had manic fluctuations of energy. According to the reading, this was not all we could expect. “Expeditioners have also experienced impaired cognition such as: reduced accuracy and short-term memory, increased response time for cognitive tasks and spontaneous fugue states referred to as ‘the Antarctic stare’.”
When you talk to miners about why they were drawn to Coober Pedy, they all say it was the solitude. Opal mining is, for the most part, a solo endeavor where people scrape around in the dirt with picks or heavy machinery and dig 80-foot shafts straight down without an engineering plan or guidelines. Nearly everyone I talked to had survived at least one minor tunnel collapse and still returned underground the next day. Everyone knows someone who died mining. This speaks to a renegade spirit, the desire to inhabit a place beyond reach of the law and the daily stress and strictures of a nine-to-five workday. I can’t blame them.
Coober Pedy was the “wild west” during the mad boom of the 80s that attracted thousands of hopefuls to burrow down and pick apart the landscape. This period saw the stripping of all the “easy” or surface opal and left behind a quiet wasteland. There is only a handful of miners left now, and most of them exist in a kind of working poverty—living off welfare and scraping by on cash-in-hand work, delaying the mounting bills until they dig up the next small parcel of gems.
But they all still believe in striking it rich. Miners see rainbow opals in their sleep: “dreaming of color” is considered an omen of luck. This was the oneiric version of another phenomenon described in the preparation reading. “‘Earthflashes’ are waking dreams, bright moments where subjects experience the sensory recollections of home or of standing in a familiar place. Mission logs include accounts of sitting on a bench at a neighborhood dog park, or watching ships roll in to a harbor. Expeditioners say these visions subside within a few blinks.”
I thought that if I planned it right, my Earthflashes could travel a line extending from Coober Pedy, with its ancient store of aquatic riches, down past the Flinders Ranges and out to the Spencer Gulf, home to cuttlefish spawning grounds and great white sharks. The Gulf empties into the Great Australian Bight, where migratory whales and schools of bluefin tuna feed in the waters off the continental shelf. Beyond that was the limitless space of the deep ocean, teeming with more life than all the surface world, yet as untouched and unencountered by human technology as anywhere in our solar system. Even Mars.
We must do like the animals that rub out their traces at the entrance to their lairs.
–Michel de Montaigne (1533–92), On Solitude
An episode of 60s anthology series the Twilight Zone depicted the fate of a small colony of humans who had escaped nuclear war on Earth by flying to a desert planet with two suns named V9-Gamma. Thick dust coating the sullen faces of the colonists indicated they were ravaged and weary. The plot concerned a rescue ship that arrives from Earth to take the settlers home after 30 years, and the colony’s leader adjusting to the loss of his moral and social authority. What was really notable was that, although the colonists were emissaries for humanity, they decorated their settlement with US flags, read from the Bible, defined baseball as “the universal language” and longed for a return to Earth so they could easily throw away “things that are old and worn out.” The messages underlying the Twilight Zone episode were that capitalism and ideology do not cease to exist beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
“The billionaire Elon Musk had already tweeted a year earlier: “Dear cult members, I love you.'”
Arguments in favor of space exploration typically include that it is inspiring, is a testing ground for the human intellect, and is a way to develop beneficial technology and consumer products like the Dust Buster. The billionaire Elon Musk advocates for the colonization of Mars on the grounds that humanity will become a “multi-planetary species.” He claims this as crucial as lifting billions out of poverty, or eradicating disease, as we have a duty to “maintain the light of consciousness.” In his view, several thousand humans should be sent far enough away that in the event of a nuclear World War they would survive to “re-seed” the Earth. The billionaire Elon Musk wants to create an extinction insurance policy for the human species. He does not elaborate on why a species that wiped out all life on Earth would be worth insuring.
The billionaire Elon Musk has estimated that the first settlers on Mars will need to pay their own way, at half a million dollars each, and likened their renunciation of material wealth and comfort to those who made the move to the early American colonies. He also believes colonizing Mars to be a sure-fire way to reboot governance as a system of “direct democracy,” so that laws are decided by the public using computers produced by Silicon Valley rather than by elected lawmakers. As he is concerned with noble endeavors, this idea is taken to be very good. Many of the billionaire Elon Musk’s ideas are taken to be very good, even revelatory. The website Aeon calls him a prophet and compares him to Moses; his space ambitions are “cosmic manifest destiny”—a reference to the early-United States doctrine that encouraged white settler expansion across Native American land. The historian Frederick Merk writes these settlers acted on a belief in the potential of a “new Earth for building a new heaven.”
The billionaire Elon Musk has many millions of followers who believe his noble endeavors will bring about a miracle of salvation and Anthropocentric redemption. At an unveiling of Tesla solar panels in 2017 an audience member yelled, “Save us, Elon.” The billionaire Elon Musk had already tweeted a year earlier: “Dear cult members, I love you.”
Jan 28, 2020: Away from the busy shopfronts, the empty pews offered a profound stillness. “It’s like I said to you this morning, Mike, we’re spirits in these bodies, these bodies are gonna die,” Paul said. I looked past him to the altar made of an old miner’s winch.
Paul had been laying some heavy ministering on me all morning, well before I accepted his invitation to pray in his underground church. At the time, I didn’t really know what he meant by his talk of trapped spirits, although in fairness I usually ignore people holding signs that read “Jesus Christ is the only way for a drug-free city.” And yet here I was.
There are a dozen or so underground churches in Coober Pedy, most of them associated with its migrant population: Greek and Serbian Orthodox, Assembly of God, Anglican, Catholic. Paul was a preacher who sang hymns backed by an Aboriginal band.
He told me that before he arrived in Coober Pedy he had been addicted to pseudoephedrine and alcohol, and worked as a peripatetic auto mechanic drifting up through Queensland and Victoria and the Northern Territory, ministering along the way. Before he got here, Jesus Christ had lifted the demons of drink and speed from his back. I never told him I felt ashamed about my own pitiful reasons for taking flight.
“It was the weirdest thing. I was just standing there, and something unhooked itself out of here and out of there,” he said, putting his hands up to his shoulder and his ribs. “And I thought ‘what’s happened there?’ The weight came off me and I knew I was free.”
This experience had made Paul more zealous about redeeming us sinners. I’ve always been suspicious of the kind of grim fatalism that underlies anyone who talks too much about salvation. They always seem far too eager to hurry the end times along, a bit too sure in their belief that they’ll be saved and the rest of us are fools not to listen. But Paul was just trying to help, even if people rarely responded. He didn’t take these frustrations to heart.
“What God has laid upon my heart is to tell people the truth and that’s my job finished,” he said. “If they don’t accept that I don’t judge ‘em. He’s the judge, I’m not.”
Before I left, we talked about the mission simulation, and Paul wanted to know whether I would commit when the time came. I could only respond by asking why he had stayed so long in Coober Pedy.
“For me it’s a great place that I can be alone with God,” he said, explaining that he went to wide open space to pray. “There’s no interferences—and there’s only Him and I out there. That’s where I get my directions as to what He wants me to do. I spend time with Him.”
Any true believer has at some point been intimate with doubt, and I thought Paul could sense mine. How else to explain his insistence that not all answers in this life can be found within a booklet, or down an opal mine. He offered the numinous: “It goes past the intellect, to our spirits.”
Humans occupy no preferred status as a pinnacle or culmination [of the history of life]. Life has always been dominated by its bacterial mode.
–The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, Full House
Space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air and sea.
–The billionaire and 45th US President Donald Trump explaining his idea for a US “Space Force” during a speech in March 2018
The billionaire Elon Musk is in favor of detonating thermonuclear warheads over the poles of Mars. This, he claims, will produce a very thin atmosphere and, eventually, an “Earth-like” planet. There is currently one “Earth-like” planet in the solar system. The present geological epoch of that planet is known as the Anthropocene, a term referencing the profound and catastrophic effect of one species on the global ecosystem. Markers of the Anthropocene include the global monoculture of a domesticated and genetically modified fowl raised as food, oceans turning into a plastic soup, and a sixth mass extinction of nearly all species except one. The term implies that the spread of industrial capitalism has reached such scale that consumer goods are being written into the planetary record.
The richest man in the world Jeff Bezos made his fortune through Amazon, a company that has revolutionized e-commerce and ships roughly 13.7 million items around the world every day. Amazon’s same-day Prime delivery service dispatched five billion items in 2017. The Prime best seller in the US was the Instant Pot Pressure Cooker. In Italy, it was Finish All-In-One Max Tablets. The best seller in China was the Fisher-Price Soothe & Glow Seahorse. The billionaire and richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, has committed to one day establishing an “Amazon-like shipment service” to the Moon.
Blue Origin uses an illustration of a single feather to decorate the side of its New Shephard suborbital rocket. The billionaire Jeff Bezos says it is a symbol of “the perfection of flight” and that birds represent “freedom and exploration and mobility and progress.” Around 1,300 bird species are facing extinction in the Anthropocene. The crest of Blue Origin also contains two tortoises, an allusion to the slower animal from the Tortoise and Hare fable. The billionaire Jeff Bezos claims: “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” Several species of Galapagos Tortoise are already extinct.
The motto of Blue Origin is Gradatim Ferociter, a Latin phrase meaning: “Step by Step, Ferociously.” The billionaire Jeff Bezos owns a pair of tan cowboy boots emblazoned with this motto. He can often be seen stepping out in them, ferociously. The richest man in the world Jeff Bezos was not wearing his cowboy boots when he presented a keynote address at the New York Explorer’s Club in March, 2018. During his speech, he said he was using his “Amazon lottery winnings” to enable humanity to “explore the solar system.” After his speech, the billionaire Jeff Bezos ate a roast iguana as a reminder of the ecological destruction wrought by invasive species. No one in the audience asked whether this spectacle could technically be called cannibalism.
Blue Origin is a company owned by the billionaire Jeff Bezos with a name that alludes to the planet Earth. The word “Origin” refers to the fact that humanity was born on this planet. The word “Blue” is a reference to the Pale Blue Dot, a photograph of the Earth taken six billion kilometers away by the Voyager spacecraft as it was leaving the Solar System. This photo was described in a lecture by Carl Sagan, an astronomer and author who inspired many people by writing about the wonders of scientific curiosity and discovery, and the beauty of the cosmos. He also spoke passionately on the moral outrage of extreme inequality among some human societies. His Pale Blue Dot speech drew attention to the preciousness of Earth—appearing in the photo as a single blue pixel, “a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam” against the enveloping cosmic dark. The vantage point captured in the photo, according to Carl Sagan, revealed the “folly of human conceits” and the delusion that humanity has a privileged position in the universe. He ended by saying the photo underscored the importance of cherishing and preserving the Pale Blue Dot, the only home humanity has ever known.
Jan 28, 2020: Paul was right: about his Maker, and about me. I also liked the wide-open spaces more than I had considered before signing up to abandon them. When I left his church at sundown, I drove to a patch he recommended forty kilometers out of town, just beyond the edge of the opal fields.
As I sat, I could just perceive a purple-pink haze spreading out on the ground before me, a shimmer of color that I mistook to be my eyes adjusting to the fading light. When I looked closer, I saw these were delicate wildflowers no bigger than a 50-cent coin—a desert bloom of bright Parakeelya so massive it eluded my focus. Closer still, and in the yellow center of each flower was a tiny worker ant collecting pollen, a network of black dots hidden inside a carpet of flowers growing to the horizon.
When they eventually stepped out of that horrible capsule, would the expeditioner replacing me see anything so precious? Maybe they would feel what I felt out here: the warm and sleepy desert breeze on their face, rocks the size of watermelons tinkling underfoot like the most delicate glass, and, ever so slightly, the sense of submergence; echoes of cool water in a desiccated landscape.
From the latest issue of The Lifted Brow. Used with permission of The Lifted Brow. Copyright © 2018 Michael Dulaney.