Rocket men: Bezos, Musk and Branson fight for space supremacy | Space
It was a week in which two space billionaires once again faced off in their futuristic game of cosmic one-upmanship. And this time, for once, Elon Musk was not at the party.
The statement that Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the richest man in the world, was heading to space next month for the first crewed launch of his Blue Origin New Shepard rocket was quickly followed by an apparent leak of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic empire that the British mogul may seek to eclipse it with a 4th of July Independence Day Show of its own.
Branson’s team quickly downplayed the possibility, insisting that a date for its first space flight had not yet been determined. But beyond what some might see as pointless billionaires using real rockets as toys, the episode highlights just how close the lucrative but still nascent commercial space industry is to regularly launching fare-paying passengers into space and achieve a goal of two decades in the making.
On Saturday, the winner of an auction for a seat to accompany Bezos and his brother Mark in next month’s great space adventure will be announced on the Blue Origin website. On Thursday, the auction reached $ 4.2 million for the 11-minute round trip.
“Many congratulations to Jeff Bezos and his brother Mark on the announcement of spaceflight plans, ”said Branson in a tweet directed against his rival. “Jeff started to build @originbleu in 2000 we started to build @virgingalactic in 2004 and now, both open access to Space – it’s extraordinary! Watch this place… “
Missing from Branson’s tweet, there was no mention of Musk, whose maverick Space Exploration Technologies Corporation – better known as EspaceX – has grown from a precarious start in 2002 to becoming the dominant player in the commercial space sector, and a key partner of the US space agency, NASA. The company already regularly sends astronauts to the International Space Station and is renting its Dragon space capsule this fall for its first private space flight, taking a crew of four on a three-day orbital odyssey.
With differing ambitions and long-term goals, the three billionaires have collectively disrupted the traditional government-funded and led model for human spaceflight and are shaping a thriving new commercial space age, according to Matthew Weinzierl, professor at Harvard Business School. and expert in space economy.
“The recent accomplishments of SpaceX, as well as the efforts to come from Boeing, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic to send people to space sustainably and at scale, mark the opening of a new chapter in spaceflight conducted by private companies, ”he said.
“They have both the intention and the ability to bring private citizens into space as passengers, tourists and eventually settlers, opening the door for businesses to begin meeting the demand these people will create over the course of time. decades to come. “
Weinzierl expects there will be a gradual shift from money spent in space for the benefit of Earth, such as investments in telecommunications and satellites and Internet infrastructure, to the so-called economy of space for space, including mining asteroids or the moon for materials that will be needed to support human habitat and fuel deeper space missions to Mars or beyond.
Bezos and Musk have always had bigger goals in mind, even as they took their first steps into the space industry, experts say. But their visions diverge beyond humans flying in low Earth orbit, or even suborbital flight, as will be Bezos’ brief adventure in July.
“Musk is totally about Mars. His passion is to bring people to Mars as a back-up plan to Earth and to make humanity a multiplanetary species, ”said Marcia Smith, founder and principal analyst of spacepolicyonline.com.
“Bezos is interested in the moon and the space between the Earth and the moon. He wants to move all heavy industry off Earth and into cislunar space. He talks about rezoning the Earth for light industry and housing.
“So they’re both interested in trying to save Earth because of all the problems Earth is having, but they have very different views of how it’s going to happen.”
NASA has embraced the two billionaires as it continues its own exploration programs. In April, the agency chose SpaceX to build the spacecraft to bring humans back to the moon for the first time since 1972, a decision Blue Origin challenged. The enigmatic Musk reacted in a typically belligerent fashion, Tweeter: “Couldn’t get it up (into orbit) lol” in reference to Bezos’ unsuccessful efforts to launch a crew into space.
The two companies’ operations have the potential to attract billions of dollars in investment to the United States through commercial clients, and Weinzierl sees the space as “the ultimate industry of the future,” although he says that it may take longer than this century to reach its potential. .
“The industry has changed a lot over the past two decades, largely because there are new competitors looking to serve private customers in addition to governments,” he said.
“At the same time, NASA and other public agencies are still the main sources of funding and specific plans for space beyond low earth orbit, where the private satellite market has long been active. Even SpaceX, for all its success, wouldn’t be here without NASA’s partnership. “
Smith argues that Musk created his own chance to position SpaceX as the primary pioneer in the new private space market.
“Musk really transformed the industry and brought business back to the United States, through lower prices and reuse. He really made a change, ”she said.
“Bezos is trying to build this New Glenn rocket and has setbacks with the engine.”
John Logsdon, the respected George Washington University professor emeritus and founder of the Space Policy Institute, expressed the differences between the two tycoons in another way, in a 2018 interview with the Guardian.
“Musk’s style is to brag about things and then do them. Bezos’ style is to do it and then brag about it, ”he said.
“I would call it competition, and competition is the American way of life.”
As for Branson, the founder of Virgin achieved major success last month when his SpaceShipTwo rocket plane reached an altitude of 55.4 miles, either in space or on the edge of it, according to the calculation of the Karman Line, the perceived limit of outer space, is being used. This brings its long-awaited but delayed aspiration of a profitable space tourism business considerably closer.
What is the relevance of the flight of the Bezos brothers on board New Shepherd, his rocket named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space, will be with Blue Origin’s broader ambitions is questionable, although Weinzierl, the Harvard professor, sees it as more than a publicity stunt.
“It’s about demonstrating in the most powerful way possible that he trusts the technology,” he said.