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To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, in his own rendering of fighter pilot John Gillespie Magee Jr: Today, Jeff Bezos slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God – in a rocket that looked especially offensive for the job.
New Shepard, the semi-reusable craft that blasted Bezos and his co-passengers just beyond the boundary of Earth’s atmosphere, wasn’t just phallic: it was practically a sculpture of an erect penis. The tweets wrote themselves, from the gobsmacked to the smirking to the downright joyous to deft renderings of the rocket as, well, exactly what it looked like.
Also speaking up were the righteously angry, hitting on the fundamental truth of what Bezos has achieved: not just the feat of becoming the world’s richest man, but the perfectly perverse triumph of funding his own spaceflight with cash from his own corporate titan, one that shores itself up with ruthless tax “efficiency” and works its chronically underpaid staff to the point of exhaustion, or worse. This is a triumph of unmistakably masculine in-your-face hubris, and the can’t-unsee-it arrow-nudge in the Amazon logo is the perfect emblem.
With Bezos and his crew’s brief in-and-out concluded, space is blissfully free of our grimy anatomical doings for now. But we’ve already been busy filling it not just with junk, but with our own sexual vocabulary. Sci-fi is full of sex – not just Jane Fonda’s simulated zero-gravity striptease in Barbarella, but the violent rampages of H.R. Giger’s Xenomorph, specifically and cruelly designed with phallic rape in mind for the shattering Alien movies.
Sex and space have ways of colliding in real life. Think of all the rocket-themed sexual vocabulary of the missile envy-driven Cold War years. Think of the message from NASA’s Curiosity rover when it touched down on Mars: “GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!”
Think of the theory of panspermia, the notion that life might be seeded throughout the universe by tiny organisms that can survive outside the nurturing embrace of their home planets – perhaps ejected into outer space by explosions on the surface, or carried there by some other means. As Neil Young put it in After the Gold Rush: “All in a dream, all in a dream/the loading had begun/flying mother nature’s silver seed/to a new home in the sun.”
Think of that: a millennia-long evolutionary saga whose eventual protagonists spend a shocking proportion of their tiny lives obsessing over their genitals. And millions of years later, here we are laughing at Jeff Bezos’s rocket, wondering half-seriously whether or not he really didn’t notice its shape as he climbed aboard.
Dreaming of human endeavors beyond the upper atmosphere is not incompatible with snorting at a self-serious billionaire’s space phallus. Bezos and his ilk are doomed (or blessed) to live in a post-Freudian culture where anything remotely long or straight is one unfortunate contour away from design disaster, and no amount of money will change that.
It’s their self-seriousness as much as anything else that deserves to be mocked. Elon Musk, future captain of his own gigglesome rocket, got plenty of stick recently when he shared an earnest little poem that took aim at the haters: “Space represents hope for so many people,” he bleated, as he took fire from those justly furious at the billionaire class’s relative indifference to the climate emergency.
Musk and Bezos and their comrades deserve much harsher consequences for their celestial entitlement than ridicule, but so long as we stop short of saving our world for ourselves and wait for someone to stop us from buying things off Amazon from inside our variously overheated and overcooled homes, ridicule is what they shall have.
And if you pay as much as Jeff Bezos did for an unmistakably phallic rocket with an embarrassingly short flight time, you deserve everything you get.