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Scenes from the Toasty New Gilded Age

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Sir Richard Branson stand by the Virgin Galactic Space craft at the Farnborough International Airshow on Nov. 7, 2012 in Hampshire. (Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images)

A few stories from the American West over the last few days:

Richard Branson finally got his trip to space on Sunday.

It has been a very long wait for Mr. Branson, the irreverent, 70-year-old British billionaire who leads a galaxy of Virgin companies. In 2004, he founded Virgin Galactic to provide adventurous tourists with rides on rocket-powered planes to the edge of space and back.

At the time, he thought commercial service would begin in two to three years. Instead, close to 17 years have passed. Virgin Galactic says it still has three more test flights to conduct, including the one on Sunday, before it can be ready for paying passengers.

Cars drove Mr. Branson and his crewmates to the plane on Sunday, and the flight took off on Sunday morning around 10:40 a.m. Eastern time from Spaceport America in New Mexico, about 180 miles south of Albuquerque.

The space plane separated from the carrier ship around 11:25 a.m. and ignited its engine for about 60 seconds, carrying Mr. Branson and the crew into space. Video footage from the live stream showed him and the crew experiencing weightlessness.

….

It’s happening. Again. For the fourth time in five weeks, a punishing heat wave is set to bake the West and adjacent western Canada. This time, the most exceptional heat is expected to focus in the central and northern Rockies, developing this weekend and peaking around Monday.

The heat wave is forecast to bring triple-digit temperatures to at least 17 million people, challenging and breaking records into Canada. It’s also targeting an area where numerous wildfires have flared up and a smoky haze fills the skies. The arrival of even hotter, drier conditions could compound the situation.

The blast of heat is set to arrive just days after Las Vegas soared to a record-tying 117 degrees amid historically high temperatures from the Southwest into California’s Central Valley. Two weeks ago, meanwhile, a 1,000-year heat event brought unprecedented temperatures to the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, producing highs of 108 degrees in Seattle, 116 in Portland and 121 in Lytton, Canada — a new Canadian record.

A wildfire raging in Oregon is currently the largest fire in the nation, burning more than 201,000 acres across the state, officials said Tuesday. The Bootleg Fire started in Klamath County on July 6, forcing officials to place more than 100 homes under mandatory evacuation orders.

As of Tuesday, the fire destroyed 54 structures and 21 homes, according to CBS affiliate KOIN. The cause of the fire is currently unknown.

Fire officials said the blaze will continue to spread in areas with above-average temperatures and will only be fueled by dry ground and high winds, KOIN reported. Residents living in areas with the highest evacuation levels face citations or arrest, police said.

As of Tuesday night, there were three other fires across the state: The Jack Fire in Douglas County, the Grandview Fire near Oregon’s Crooked River National Grassland and the Bruler Fire near Detroit. The Jack Fire has grown to more than 12,500 acres and is 15% contained. Meanwhile, the Grandview Fire has burned over 5,700 acres and is 5% contained, KOIN reported. The Bruler Fire, which was detected Monday, is estimated to be about 60 acres, the U.S. Forest Service said. It is not currently a threat to any structures or communities, but it is 0% contained, the agency said.

….

After watching Laurence Fishburne get stuck in the deep dimensions of hell in the classic 1997 film Event Horizon, I lost any interest in space travel. If I ever have a chance to explore the worlds of the unknown, I’ll choose the deep sea. There are so many different species of fish, sharks, and cephalopods that look like they’re from another planet. All the amazingly diverse creatures that exist on this planet are a wonder in and of themselves, and well worth saving.

Despite knowing that our way of life pollutes the planet, causes mass extinctions, and makes parts of the world uninhabitable, the powers that be seem to have their head in the stars instead of on Earth. On June 10, the Senate passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which, if passed into law, will devote $250 billion to fund science, research and development, manufacturing, and innovation. 

Now a battle is mounting over how much our billionaire overlords can benefit from these programs. Currently, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is the sole NASA contractor for a lunar-lander program, which is focused on making it easier for humans to travel to the moon. Thanks to an amendment added by Democratic senator Maria Cantwell of Washington and Republican senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, $10 billion of the new funding could go to Jeff Bezos’s company Blue Origin for its work on a similar moon-landing project. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders voted against the amendment, calling it a “Bezos bailout,” but it passed the Senate, and the legislation’s fate is now in the hands of the House. As it turns out, Blue Origin is located in the state Cantwell represents, and the Intercept reported that the company spent $625,000 lobbying the Senate ahead of the additional amendment.

The two men often competing to be the richest person in the world are poised to get billions from the government to play space cowboys. As a recent ProPublica report revealed, these same two men have paid little to no income taxes for years. Yet they have obtained U.S. contracts that will further compound their repulsively immense wealth. Musk has already announced plans to try and colonize Mars, saying last year, “If there’s something terrible that happens on Earth, either made by humans or natural, we want to have, like, life insurance for life as a whole.” Bezos has set his sights on colonizing the moon, telling the media in 2019, “It’s time to go back to the moon, this time to stay.” 

The first Tesla Solar neighbourhood is to be built near Austin, Texas, and aims to be the US’s “most sustainable residential community”.

SunHouse at Easton Park will be a collaboration between Tesla Energy, Brookfield Asset Management and real estate developer Dacra. The new sustainable residential community will have V3 solar roof tiles, Powerwall battery storage and, of course, plenty of charging points for Tesla electric cars.

“Neighbourhood solar installations across all housing types will reshape how people live,” said Tesla CEO Elon Musk in a statement. “The feedback we get from the solar and battery products used in this community will impact how we develop and launch new products.”

The housing project began construction in June, and sustainable features will be installed in phases, some of which may benefit the wider community. The self-sufficient neighbourhood will not need to tap into the electric grid and could potentially deliver power for broader public use and needs. There will also be backup storage in the event of a power outage in the community.

“The City of Austin is excited for the arrival of these affordable options to housing powered by renewable energy,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler. “I am excited for the Tesla, Brookfield, and Dacra partnership’s approach to sustainable energy and housing as an example of the out-of-box thinking that continues to make our community a beacon of innovation for the rest of the country and world.”

The rivalry between billionaires has ignited a heated debate about inequality. To many, those billions of dollars could’ve been spent alleviating the stresses of a worsening climate and humanitarian crises — while to others, it’s an exhilarating taste of a future where space is more within reach than it’s ever been before.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk seems to be particularly incensed by the view that billionaires are wasting their time trying to explore space while failing to fix our planet’s many problems.

“Those who attack space maybe they don’t realize that space represents hope for so many people,” Musk tweeted on Monday.

Maybe these billionaires can launch themselves into the sun.

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