Money can buy you a round trip to the edge of space, but it can’t buy you respect on the internet — or admiration from the customers and low-income workers who made your dream possible.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos launched himself to the boundary of space aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket on Tuesday, with his brother Mark, space pioneer Wally Funk and Oliver Daemen, a banker’s son, joining him for the ride.
Bezos spent just over 10 minutes in the heavens before coming back down to Earth, where he was already being criticized and mocked on social media for the extravagant display of his personal wealth.
“The world’s richest man went on a 10-minute space ride in a penis-shaped rocket,” writer Daniel Kibblesmith tweeted afterward. “We don’t need metaphors anymore.”
More than 185,000 people also signed a Change.org petition to bar Bezos from returning to Earth. “Billionaires should not exist … on earth, or in space,” the petition poster wrote. “But should they decide the latter, they should stay there.”
Critics also accused Bezos of saying the quiet part out loud at a post-flight news conference, when he credited his customers and employees for making him the richest man in the world — a man capable of buying his own rocket to fly into space.
“I also want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all of this,” Bezos said.
Amazon has enjoyed tremendous growth in recent years, particularly since the beginning of the pandemic. That growth helped Bezos become the wealthiest man in the world, even after losing some of that cash in his divorce with MacKenzie Scott.
Amazon has also been plagued by accusations that it underpays its workers and crushes their attempts to unionize, while also using complex manoeuvres to avoid big tax payments.
“Amazon workers don’t need Bezos to thank them. They need him to stop union busting — and pay them what they deserve,” Robert Reich, the former U.S. secretary of labour under Bill Clinton, tweeted on Tuesday. “Who else thinks Bezos should pay his fair share of taxes before thanking Amazon customers for funding his joy ride to space?”
Other politicians voiced similar opinions.
“Space travel isn’t a tax-free holiday for the wealthy,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon, tweeted in response to the stunt. “We pay taxes on plane tickets,” Blumenauer wrote. “Billionaires flying into space — producing no scientific value — should do the same, and then some!”
Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a Democrat from New York, pointed out that the median employee income at Amazon is about $29,000 a year.
“While Jeff Bezos is all over the news for paying to go to space, let’s not forget the reality he has created here on Earth,” she wrote.
Many others piled on to call it a waste of money that could have been spent on fighting climate change or helping the poor, rather than pouring it into a billionaire rocket-measuring contest with Elon Musk (SpaceX) and Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic). Branson went into space a few days before Bezos.
Colleen Farrell, a doctor and medical ethics expert, framed the launch as a perfect example of the world’s problems.
“If everything that is wrong with the world needed to be summed up in a single metaphor, I think it would be Jeff Bezos spending billions for a 10 minute ride on his phallic rocket while the planet burns and his workers are not given enough money to live or time to use the toilet,” she wrote on Twitter.
“Penis rocket” jokes took off on Twitter, with many comparing Blue Origin’s New Shepard craft to the phallic missile used by Dr. Evil in the film Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. A scene in the film shows people pointing to the a phallic rocket and using euphemisms for a penis.
“I can’t believe Bezos didn’t launch his penis rocket on Hump Day,” social media personality @JoJofromJerz wrote on Twitter Wednesday.
“Reliable sources tell me that Bezos says this is ‘Just the Tip’ of private space exploration,” Donald Trump Jr. quipped after the flight, in a veiled sexual reference.
All rockets are cylindrically shaped, but Bezos’ New Shepard ignited phallic comparisons with its blunted and slightly bulbous capsule, which sits like a helmet atop the more narrow booster. The booster also has fins that stick out to either side when seen in profile.
The adult site CamSoda capitalized on the rocket design to announce its own line of “billionaire space race”-themed sex toys, featuring objects shaped like the Blue Origin, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic craft.
“Nice,” Musk tweeted in response to the Blue Origin sex toy on Tuesday, after congratulating Bezos on the flight.
Branson also congratulated Bezos without making any “Richard” jokes about the rocket.
—With files from The Associated Press