Three billionaires walk into a bar. They’re named Musk, Bezos and Branson. And they’ve all got bets on who’s going to make it into space first.
As you all know, Elon Musk is no stranger to space travel, given his ambitious SpaceX startup. Musk started SpaceX in 2002 when he felt there was an opportunity for low-orbit space travel that government agencies like NASA had no interest in pursuing. He achieved his first big milestone when SpaceX was the first private company to launch a payload into orbit and return it to Earth intact in 2010. The first crewed flight was on a SpaceX Dragon capsule, launched in May, 2020. Ten years is a phenomenally fast timeframe to go from launching rockets to manned spacecraft by anyone’s measurements.
Next up: Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon. He also founded a spaceflight startup in 2000 called Blue Origin. Not much came from the organization until they purchased a large tract of land in West Texas for a launch and test facility. Bezos later went on to say that a new launch vehicle would make its first flight in the late 2010’s. Blue Origin launched the New Shepard space vehicle in 2015, and Bezos went on to make the claim that human space flight would be available by 2018. And you can fly on one of his spacecrafts for the bargain price of $200,000-$300,000 per person. Bezos went on to announce that he would fly to space as a passenger himself with the first crewed flight of the New Shepard in June, 2021, with a planned launch date of July 20, 2021 (way to grab the moon landing importance of the date).
Not to be outdone, Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, which produces everything from records to airlines and now – you guessed it – Virgin Galactic, has announced that he’ll be flying in Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity rocketplane on July 11 (just a test flight), besting Jeff Bezos by 9 days. Likewise, Virgin Galactic has indicated their sub-orbital flights would cost around $250,000 per person, and more than 600 people have already signed up for it. Still…not a cheap adventure for the light-hearted or fiscally-responsible.
With all this focus on billionaires developing space travel and tourism, what are we to make of it all? Does this mean we’re all destined to take a trip to Mars in our lifetime? Or is this merely a publicity stunt, meant to bolster the egos of wealthy businessmen, and divert attention away from the real climate issues we face here on Earth? Maybe it’s a combination of both. We’ll continue to observe from afar, and focus on more tangible goals like electrification and automation.