Meanwhile, Back on Earth

There aren’t a lot of wholly unique takes to have on the space flights of Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, so I won’t really pretend that I’m creating one here. Typically, responses are somewhere on the spectrum between “Billionaire joyrides are foolish” to “These were indeed historic moments,” and I’m not going to bother giving much of my own opinion on these beliefs there.

I am, however, going to talk about the story created afterwards by each high-flyer’s (for lack of a better term) post-game press conference.  I’ll be relying on two post-flight clips to draw the distinction.  Let’s do a bit of analysis.

In Bezos’ CNBC post-flight interview, the optics feel about as curated as they undoubtedly were.  We have a row of four flyers on stage, an interviewer just off stage, and multiple landers and space equipment positioned behind the five.  Bezos and group are dressed in blue suits (Bezos standing out in a giant cowboy hat), and only the interviewer wears black.

Throughout the video, only the interviewer and Bezos speak.  Bezos spends considerable time thanking Amazon customers for making the journey possible, and speaks of both the peacefulness of zero-gravity floating and the fragility of Earth’s atmosphere.

Branson’s interview, conducted by ABC in an outdoor setting, has a much different look and feel.  Wind visibly knocks about the umbrellas and fixtures behind Branson, whose excitement is palpable in his movements and exclamations of a childhood dream come true.  This thrill is echoed by fellow astronaut Sirisha Bandla, who speaks of the messages of aspiration and encouragement she received from Indian women.

We know that all of these choices, from setting, to speakers, to what’s being said, are all extremely purposeful.  Billionaires like Branson and Bezos don’t tend to address the media by accident—Bezos, previously fairly media-shy, and Branson, famously larger-than-life, are each clearly interested in public appearances that fit their desired self-presentations.  But what messages are viewers really receiving?

Let’s look first at the visual storytelling behind Bezos’ post-space clip.  It’s the pinnacle of what actor William B. Davis once called “relaxed authority,” with Bezos seated in a highly staged context, calmly speaking in a room filled with people there specifically to listen to his thoughts (and his alone).  There’s no way to forget what that context is—the backdrop of space exploration vehicles and wardrobe choices of the onstage travelers mean that even if we can’t hear Bezos, we know exactly what he’s talking about.

And this is a story about Bezos, even though he thanks others and refers to the town and his compatriots briefly; he’s visually unmissable in his cowboy hat, and he’s the one speaking.  His story is about himself at first (his experience of zero-gravity), and then broadens to musings about the fragility of Earth’s atmosphere.  It’s filtered through his own perceptions, of course, but it’s markedly different than his preceding thoughts.

There’s a solemnity to the affair; the light is stable, the air is still, his voice is fairly calm.  The story, taken together, is that Bezos was not (and is still not) out of control.  He’s happy, he’s intrigued, and he’s got something more to think about than he did previously—but like we might expect, his response is measured.  This went well; it was always going to go well.

Richard Branson, by contrast, is all grins, exultations, and physicality.  Outside in the Mojave Desert, Branson stands in the wind, telling the interviewer that of the lifelong dream he’s just accomplished.  His voice rises as he gives Bandla a double-fist bump, and as she talks about her experience, her gestures are similarly animated.  They point to their ‘been-to-space’ pins on their flight suits and grin.  They clasp hands again.

Branson is overwhelmed with energy and has no compunctions displaying it.  He speaks less about the world and more about himself; Bandla speaks much more about the broader implications of the journey.  Branson is as bouncy as his windy background, and both entirely self-centered and out of his mind at the same time.  He’s a seventy-year-old boy.  You can’t believe what I just did.

Notably, Branson gives time to Bandla; she’s part of this story, too, and he wants us to hear her take as well.  So, perhaps self-centered isn’t the whole truth for Branson after all, just as it wasn’t quite for Bezos as he considered environmental realities—Branson’s own joy dominates his part of the story, but he’s interested in sharing that story.

Interestingly, there’s a design element at play that’s identical in both videos: the accent color of blue.  Blue, it would seem, means space—all the astronauts, from both missions, wear a blue flight suit.  The name of Bezos’ program was Blue Origin, but the color was nowhere in Branson’s company name.  Arguably a coincidence, this is nevertheless an noticeable throughline in both narratives.

Self-focus is a part of both stories, clearly—Bezos departs from it only in his discussion of atmosphere, Branson in his shared screentime with Bandla.  Unsurprisingly, it seems impossible to separate space journeys from ego—but, then, it’s a sort of collective expression of self-confidence that propels any of us into space, so perhaps this isn’t quite so billionaire-specific as we might want to immediately think.

Visual storytelling is a part of the news as much as it is fiction, and these two space-farers clearly wanted their news stories told in a certain way.  Bezos wanted his to feel meditative; Branson, near manic.  Bezos wanted a silent audience to receive his ideas; Branson wanted to celebrate with a partner. 

There’s little that’s common about space exploration—a notion hardly lost on either Branson or Bezos, and not one they tried to contradict.  Their choice of setting, behaviors, costars (silent or participatory) all said something different.  Bezos is still Bezos after space: calculating, level-headed, the most important person in the room.  Branson hasn’t changed either, looking every bit the excitable playboy he always has (if not more so). 

Perhaps these visual stories teach us less about the specific figures within than about space’s effect on the personality: it’s a supercharger, turning our natural tendencies up to an eleven.