Simonyi backlash

When Dennis Tito flew six years ago, the question was whether or not a private fare-paying citizen could visit the International Space Station. By last year that controversy had disappeared and had been replaced by more mundane ones: was Anousheh Ansari the first female space tourist or not? So far, Charles Simonyi’s flight to the ISS has been free of controversy, so The Nation magazine tries to stir one up by suggesting that Simonyi should spend his money on charitable causes rather than a flight to the ISS. Author Richard Kim, a professor of American studies at Skidmore College, asks, “Is there a more perfect symbol of the excesses of global capitalism than Charles Simonyi’s 13-day joyride into outer space?” He sees Simonyi’s flight as symptomatic of super-wealthy Americans who would rather spend money on yachts, mansions, or, in this case, spaceflights than donate it to charity.

However, Professor Kim’s essay suffers from a fatal flaw: the false dichotomy. Either billionaires can spend their money on themselves or donate it to worthy causes, Professor Kim seems to argue. However, there’s no reason why they can’t do both. Even Professor Kim acknowledges in his essay that Simonyi has made a number of significant charitable donations. Moreover, Simonyi’s flight is hardly a selfish joyride: he is using his flight as an educational tool, including planning several amateur radio contacts with US high schools, and will conduct experiments for the Japanese, European, and Hungarian space agencies. Professor Kim, however, seems fixated instead on the single gourmet meal that Simonyi and his ISS crewmates will enjoy during the 13-day flight.

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