The Billionaire Space Race: And the Winner Is…
Mansions, supercars, superyachts, Richard Milles are what the ultra-rich like to splurge on. But this year, going to space has become the ultimate flex of wealth and power. Billionaires Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson have been taking turns to outdo each other; at stake are bragging rights and the superiority of their rocket company.
However, not everyone is impressed by these exorbitant suborbital jaunts like Prince William, who commented that “we need some of the world’s greatest brains and minds fixed on trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live.” These remarks came following 90-year-old actor William Shatner’s trip to space on Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. Other critics have agreed that these tycoons could have spent their fortune on more pressing issues like sustainability (and perhaps paying more taxes too). Even former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich took a jibe saying, “No one needs Bezos to launch rockets into outer space. We need him to pay his fair share of taxes so people can thrive here on Earth.”
These billionaires are not the only players in the game; there are others vying for the throne. At present, there are hundreds of space start-ups researching satellite tech and orbiting hotels. While, SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are ahead of the pack, perhaps the winner isn’t the one who is the fastest—and the best is yet to be determined.
Sir Richard Branson founded Virgin Galactic 17 years ago with the aim of taking paying customers on supersonic flights to the edge of space—using a winged, rocket-powered spaceplane as opposed to a vertically launched rocket. In its initial stages, the company encountered several challenges including a tragic mishap during a 2014 test flight that killed a co-pilot. After ironing out the kinks, Virgin Galactic has been massively successful, turning its staff into astronauts by deploying them as crew on board the VSS Unity.
The space race officially began after Bezos announced that he would fly in his Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft on July 20. Not to be outdone, Branson decided that he would take an hour-long jaunt on his Virgin Galactic VSS Unity spaceplane nine days earlier. Eight people went on its inaugural flight— including Branson, four pilots and a group of Virgin Galactic employees. Branson’s VSS Unity climbed to over 80 kilometres, a height which the US Air Force and NASA consider to be the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. This number is debatable though because the World Air Sports Federation has defined human spaceflight differently—outer space is 100 kilometres above Earth’s mean sea level, the so-called Karman Line, 12 kilometres higher than what Branson achieved.
Branson has also sent a rocket to orbit. Virgin Orbit, which spun off from Virgin Galactic in 2017, sent its first batch of satellites to orbit in January this year. Admittedly, while Virgin Orbit’s Launcher is less powerful than Musk’s Falcon 9s or Bezos’ planned New Glenn rockets, they are still regarded as industry leaders in rocket technology. More than 600 people have already bought tickets (US$250,000 per head, anyone?) for a suborbital flight onboard the Virgin Galactic including celebrities like Justin Bieber and Leonardo DiCaprio.
To critics, Branson has asserted that his enterprise is less about ego but more about accessibility for all: “Imagine a world where people of all ages, all backgrounds from anywhere, of any gender, or any ethnicity, have equal access to space. And they will, in turn, I think, inspire us back here on Earth.”
In his high school valedictorian speech, the founder of Amazon summarised his vision for the future in one line: “Space: the final frontier. Meet me there.” In 2002, Bezos’ lifelong fascination eventually materialised in the form of Blue Origin.
Slow and steady wins the race seems to be his philosophy towards space travel, an ethos reflected clearly in the company’s mascot—a tortoise—as well as their motto “gradatim ferociter,” a Latin phrase for “step by step, ferociously.” This makes Blue Origin the antithesis of SpaceX, which is known for its speedy trial-and-error methodology over slow development. According to Bezos, he spent his fortune investing in space travel as he wanted to find orbital space colonies for humans to live in, should Earth ever reach an energy scarcity crisis. Hence, cheaper rocket and spacecraft technologies to support these extraterrestrial territories. After years of research, Blue Origin has a fully autonomous, suborbital rocket called New Shepard, taking them a step closer to lunar lander technology. And megarich thrill-seekers have already expressed a keen interest in buying tickets.
Blue Origin initially auctioned off a seat aboard its New Shepard rocket to an unidentified winner for US$28 million (but was later replaced by 18-year-old Oliver Daemen of the Netherlands after the winner deferred). Together with Bezos, his brother and Wally Funk, the four took off for space on July 20. It was said that the money raised was donated to a foundation, Club for the Future, which aims to inspire kids to pursue careers involving science, technology, engineering and mathematics. To date, the company reportedly made more than US$100m in flight sales in July. William Shatner, who touched down earlier this month after a four-minute sojourn into space said it was a profound experience and “everybody in the world needs to see it.”
Technical specs-wise, Blue Origin boasted that New Shepard is capable of travelling higher than Branson’s rocket, above the Kàrmàn Line at 100 kilometres altitude, the internationally-recognized border of space. Now it is aggressively perfecting a colossal orbital rocket named New Glenn while selling the engines for its New Glenn rocket to legacy aerospace company United Launch Alliance in a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. On top of that, the company is working alongside NASA to establish a moon base and create a constellation of internet-beaming satellites.
Known as the pioneer of the commercial space sector, SpaceX has smashed records, disrupted the rocket industry and accomplished nearly inconceivable feats. Founded in 2002 by Musk, the company has built the most powerful rocket in operation (capable of extreme speeds up to 17,000 miles per hour), a 1,500-piece constellation of internet-beaming satellites, had 100 rocket launches and won NASA and US military contracts. Reports have said that Musk is now preparing to launch trips around the moon by 2023. In comparison, Bezos and Branson have just literally (and metaphorically) brushed the edge of space.
While Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have sent four people into suborbital space for three minutes, SpaceX has launched four people into orbit for three days. All seats were sponsored by the founder of Shift4 Payments, Jared Isaacman, who donated the proceeds of two of the seats to St Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
However, Musk himself has not travelled to space (unlike Branson and Bezos), mentioning that he would “like to die on Mars, just not on impact.” Separately, he has also spoken out against his “rivals,” saying they were solely profit-driven, unlike SpaceX, which has a bigger aim of “making life multi-planetary.” Three businessmen have already paid US$55 million each to SpaceX for an eight-day stay at the International Space Station next year (where meals cost an eye-watering US$2,000 a day).