Woke warriors have criticised the billionaire space race as a vanity project, but could their lofty plans end up saving life on Earth? Harry de Quetteville reports
When I was a boy, growing up in southwest London, the soundtrack of my life was low-flying planes on the approach to Heathrow. We carried on regardless as they passed overhead, the volume of family conversation merely notching up a little.
Regularly, though, came Concorde. There was no point battling the astonishing roar of its engines. Instead, we looked up, every time, with a blend of awed admiration and annoyance.
It was, after all, an astonishing engineering feat whose cost seemed to bar any of us ever getting to ride it; a breathtaking record-setter reserved for the privileged; a pristine white glamour-tube pumping out huge trails of filth.
Was it a marvel or an exercise in excess? Were its passengers pioneers or parasitic plutocrats? To me, it didn't matter. It just looked cool.
Today, for Concorde read Virgin Galactic, another fancy-shaped aircraft ferrying the super-rich on journeys the rest of us will never get to experience - an £180,000 ($354,000) trip to the edge of space.
Sir Richard Branson, that master marketeer, spent last week publicising his achievement, trumpeting the fact that he has become the first person to get to the final frontier in a craft of his own making, just pipping Amazon's Jeff Bezos, who blasts off in his spaceship, Blue Origin, on Tuesday.
To drum up business among the millionaire tourists, it seems, the billionaires are going first.
It's easy to be cynical about Branson, Bezos and Elon Musk - the three rich, white, male spaceketeers - especially at a time when our own planet feels in particular need of attention.
The trio's critics railed as Branson's glistening grey mane defied zero-gravity last weekend.
From microscopic viruses to giant ocean patterns, they chimed, doesn't humanity have enough to deal with down here?
Musk, who visited Branson on the morning of the Virgin chief's space trip, felt compelled to offer a defence.
"Those who attack space maybe don't realise that space represents hope for so many people," he tweeted.
That didn't stop him and his fellow space cadets variously being accused of "ignoring the diversity of life on Earth" and pursuing vanity projects "for their egos" while "80 per cent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck".
There is truth to much of this, of course. The world does face many crises.
And while the three men insist there is no "space race" between them, they all have egos to stroke and businesses to promote to the wealthy.
Bezos and Branson are offering short-lived hops up into the great beyond (though some say that Branson technically doesn't even get high enough to count as space).
From September, by contrast, Musk is offering longer, multi-day, multi-million-dollar journeys.
Yet all three have grander plans, too, that should go some way to assuaging the very earthbound outrage of their foes.
Space tourism may sound like an egregious indulgence, but the three men's hopes and dreams for their space companies go beyond such stellar funfair rides.
Branson's plans are the most modest. Many in the tech world are rather sniffy about him, saying that he is not a true creator, but a branding magician who irresistibly packages the inventions of others - from banking to flying to broadband to music.
But even his ambitions in space get to the very core of how this new era aloft could benefit mankind in a down-to-earth way.
A week before Virgin Galactic took Branson into space, for example, his other space venture, Virgin Orbit, hoisted seven small satellites aloft, bringing the total it has deployed to 17.
This is small beer. Bezos and Musk are both building huge constellations of satellites, several thousand strong, to deliver internet connectivity to hard-to-reach places.
They can do it because the cost of rocketry has collapsed, often through their own innovation.
Nasa's Space Shuttle once delivered payloads into orbit at a cost of more than US$50,000 per kilo. Musk's SpaceX can do it for a thousand or two.
That benefits them, but also researchers who have longed for the grandest view of Earth, but until now been denied it because of the cost. Virgin Orbit's first 10 payloads all came from universities.
This is the real business of space today - not boldly going up, venturing forth in some megalomaniac vanity project, but looking down and offering the kind of granular data about our planet that, if we truly want to address climate change and its impacts, say, we will need to harness.
Many satellites being put into orbit are "cubesats", modest modules measuring just 10x10x10cm and weighing a little over a kilo, which are carried a few hundred kilometres up and perform perhaps a single kind of experiment.
Branson's vow to "open space to everyone and change the world for good" may sound overblown, but the heavens are indeed being democratised.
Until the middle of last decade, a few tens of satellites were launched each year, usually by nation states. Now many hundreds are.
From students running weather stations to farmers plotting optimum land use to urban planners, we all stand to benefit.
New, widespread commercial availability of earth observation imagery at a cost and resolution that was once the preserve of spies is already proving disruptive.
The new panopticon planet, doubtless, will come with ethical challenges of its own. But do-gooders who lambast space entrepreneurs might care to remember that China's long-denied camp network for Uighurs was, in part, exposed when the news agency Reuters sourced satellite imagery to demonstrate the camps' existence. That wouldn't have happened in Nasa's heyday.
The billionaires do have more grandiose dreams, of course they do. Bezos has talked of relocating "all heavy industry into space. That's the only way, really, to save this planet."
For him, Earth should be "zoned 'light residential' ", as if it were a village making a planning application.
"It's time to go back to the moon. It's time to stay," he says.
And he's right. It's easy to forget that after mankind first stepped on the Moon in 1969, it was only three years until we last did, in December 1972. What had been global news events became ignored.
Of the last mission, The New York Times ran the headline: "Apollo 17 Coverage Gets Little Viewer Response". TV audiences switched off with good reason - there was little purpose in going.
Now, in Bezos's view, there is - to develop our fledgling expansion off this planet.
Such hops should logically lead, says Musk, to the colonisation of other rocks, first in space stations, then ultimately in the open air, perhaps on a Mars that has been "terraformed" - seeded with the ecosystem that creates an atmosphere capable of sustaining human life.
It all sounds mad, but if you are worried about catastrophic climate change and the survival of life on Earth, does it not at least make sense to have a Planet B?
And it is not just wacky billionaires who recognise that space is part of the future, whether you like it or not. States are back in the game, too, spending more money, sending more missions, and flexing their military muscles.
When Russia manoeuvred one of its own craft too close to a Franco-Italian military satellite, Paris declared it an act of orbital espionage.
Perhaps the looming power of satellites is best demonstrated by the glee with which countries show off their "satellite-killer" missile tech.
When India demonstrated such capability a couple of years ago, the debris almost blew the International Space Station out of the sky.
As space becomes more crowded and contested, such crashes and conflicts are inevitable.
And for all their vainglorious self-promotion, no one can deny it takes guts for Branson and Bezos to strap in today. Pioneering comes with pitfalls preloaded.
Having watched Concorde above for so many years in boyhood, one of my first big stories to cover as a journalist came when it crashed near Paris in July 2000.
I remember a sickly frisson ran through the press pack that day, as speculation mounted about which celebrities, which billionaires, would be on board.
In fact, it turned out to be a charter flight with many of the victims from modest backgrounds: teachers and post office clerks who had saved up for years.
Three decades after it had launched, the needle-nosed wonder turned out to be no longer the preserve of the privileged.
It's extraordinary to think it, but one day, too, space travel may become banal. If it does, we will surely be crediting, not castigating, today's marvellous men in their flying machines.