By Jackie Wattles, CNN Business
Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson have a combined net worth of $ 400 billion, roughly the size of the GDP of the entire Irish nation. And the three have decided to devote huge sums of their wealth to the pursuit of their dreams of space travel, creating a modern space race in which ultra-rich men – rather than countries – aim for the stars.
The space companies founded by the three billionaires all have slightly different goals and different visions of how to achieve them. But never has the Branson-Musk-Bezos dynamic looked more competitive than when Branson announced earlier this month that he would launch into space on a sub-orbital ride a few days before Bezos climbed. in his own rocket.
Branson’s flight took off without a hitch on Sunday, while Bezos plans to take off on July 20.
But which billionaire is really winning this so-called space race? It all depends on how you look at it.
Put into perspective
The press has presented Bezos, Branson and Musk as the three so-called space barons because of their similarities: all made their fortunes in other industries before embarking on alien adventures – Musk in online payments and electric cars, Bezos with Amazon, and Branson with his empire of Virgin brand companies. And they all founded their companies within a few years of each other, becoming the most recognizable faces in the 21st century space race, in which the titans of private industry rush into space, rather than the Western governments racing with Eastern governments as in the space race of the last century.
But they’re certainly not the only players in the game, and they might not be the only space barons for very long. There are hundreds of space startups in the United States and around the world that focus on everything from satellite technology to hotels in orbit. SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin have also all benefited greatly from partnerships with NASA and the U.S. military, and all three continue to compete with each other – and at times. partner with – traditional aerospace companies, such as Boeing and Northrop Grumman and United Launch Alliance.
If there’s a race going on, space fans are usually the first to declare SpaceX the favorite. Musk’s company, founded in 2002, has built rockets capable of carrying satellites and other cargo into Earth orbit, a journey that requires speeds in excess of 17,000 miles an hour, and has built a 1,500 pieces constellation of internet satellites; he understood how to land and reuse much of his equipment after the flight; and he won massive military contracts with NASA and the United States.
It is created and piloted on most powerful rocket in operation – and performed synchronized landings of its boosters – and developed a spacecraft that successfully transported astronauts to the International Space Station. Now SpaceX is working on create a spaceship that will take humans to the moon and Mars.
Meanwhile, neither Branson’s nor Bezos companies have managed to get astronauts into orbit. Their businesses have, relatively speaking, just scratched the edge of space.
Along the way, SpaceX collected a fervent base of supporters who defends his every move. But it is clear that SpaceX has often been the pioneer of the commercial space sector by beat Records, make history, and accomplish things that industry professionals deemed impractical. The company is credited with almost single-handedly disrupting the rocket industry, which was considered quite stagnant and somewhat uninteresting for a few decades before SpaceX came along.
But on the other hand, Musk himself hasn’t traveled to space, nor has he said when he will or if he’s ready to take the risk anytime soon. His most notable comment on the matter was that he “like to die on Mars, but not on impact. “
Musk, the second richest man in the world, also rivals criticized for trying to generate profits, unlike SpaceX, which has the stated goal of “making life multiplanetary.” Take it as you want.
If a billionaire wished not to hastily manufacture rockets that are part of his brand, it is Bezos. He founded Blue Origin in 2000 – six years after launching Amazon – and gave it the motto “gradatim ferociter”, a Latin expression that translates to “step by step, fiercely. The company’s mascot is also a turtle, paying homage to the turtle and the hare’s fable that made the mantra ‘win the race slowly and steadily’ a childhood staple.
“Our mascot is the turtle because we think slow is fluid and fluid is fast,” Bezos said, which could be seen as an attempt to position Blue Origin as the anti-SpaceX, known for embracing speed. and trial-and-error on slow, meticulous development processes.
For years, the business has operated in almost complete secrecy. But now his goals are pretty clear: Bezos, the richest person in the world, eventually wants to send people to live and work in rotating orbital space colonies prolong human life after the Earth reaches a theoretical and distant level energy scarcity crisis. And he launched Blue Origin in order to develop cheaper rocket and spacecraft technologies that would be needed to create such alien dwellings. The company also has plans for a lunar lander and is working alongside NASA and others to establish a lunar base.
New Shepard – Blue Origin’s fully autonomous, reusable suborbital rocket – was intended to be a first step towards creating lunar lander technology, helping to teach the company how to safely land a small spacecraft. on the moon. But the company is also turning its New Shepard vehicle into a suborbital space tourism business where it can sell tickets to wealthy thrill seekers – and that’s at the heart of the latest news cycle. Bezos and three other passengers will be the first passengers to take an 11-minute high-speed ride aboard a New Shepard capsule.
But in the background, Blue Origin is still working on more ambitious technologies. It presents the blueprints of a gargantuan orbital rocket called New Glenn. It also sells the engines for its New Glenn rocket to the former aerospace company United Launch Alliance, which is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. And he unveiled a concept for Blue Moon, his lunar lander.
SpaceX, however, has beat Blue Origin in competition for several lucrative public markets which help finance such projects, including a NASA lunar lander contract, of which Blue Origin is currently in competition.
Separately, Amazon has also announced plans to create a constellation of Internet-transmitting satellites, much like SpaceX’s Starlink. Although Starlink is actually based on ideas that were first attempted in the 1990s, Musk has frequently accused Bezos of being a “copycat. “
Among other incidents in which Bezos and Musk clashed: Musk made a “blue ballsJoke on Bezos’ spaceship “Blue Moon”, a back and forth about who figured out how land rocket boosters first, and a spat on if Mars is a habitable planet.
Lately, however, the Branson and Bezos rivalry has taken center stage.
Branson’s Virgin Galactic was founded with much the same business plan as Blue Origin’s with New Shepard: taking paying customers on supersonic flights to the far reaches of space. Virgin Galactic’s technology is very different – using a rocket propelled winged space plane rather than a rocket and a vertical launch capsule – but the short-term goal is virtually the same.
Branson sparked speculation that Virgin Galactic had revamped its test flight plans to bring Branson into space ahead of Bezos’ flight on July 20.
Although Branson has long been committed to being the first space baron to travel to space, Virgin Galactic has encountered several major obstacles that have delayed his plans for several years. A tragic accident during a test flight 2014 of the company’s SpaceShipTwo killed a co-pilot. And a series of other technical difficulties must have been flattened before the company is ready to consider the spacecraft safe enough to pilot Branson.
Yet in the Branson vs. Bezos battleBranson has bragging rights that Bezos doesn’t: Virgin Galactic once made people into astronauts. Because the vehicle requires two pilots and has flown some Virgin Galactic employees as crew members on test flights, the company has already made astronauts out of eight people – including four pilots, Branson and a group of ‘Virgin Galactic employees who have flown as crew members – while every Blue Origin flight so far has had no one inside.
Not to mention that Branson also sent a rocket into orbit. Again, this requires a lot more rocket speed and power than suborbital travel.
Branson’s Virgin Orbit, which emerged from Virgin Galactic in 2017, sent its first batch of satellites into orbit in January. Although Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne, which takes off under the wing of a Boeing 747, is not as powerful as Musk’s Falcon 9s or the New Glenn rockets planned by Bezos, it is considered an industry leader. in a niche race to develop rockets designed specifically to carry small satellites, or smallsats, into space as they have exploded in popularity.
Virgin Galactic also has bold long-term visions, including the creation of a suborbital and supersonic jet that can transport people between cities at breakneck speeds.
To sum up: The three billionaires have similar but distinct extraterrestrial ambitions, and the goal is for the private sector to send satellites, people or goods into space cheaper and faster than has been possible in the past. decades past. But racing – as far as it is – can also be about the eccentric personalities and selfishness of some of the richest men in the world.
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