What began more than six decades ago as a battle between the United States and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) for space hegemony has metamorphosed into a “battle of the billionaires” on who would lead outer space tourism for the mass market.
On July 11 and July 20, respectively, Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos successfully launched themselves into suborbital orbit and made it safely back to earth. A third billionaire, Elon Musk, who founded SpaceEx in 2002, has cast his lot with his friend Branson, after being the first to send humans to the international space station in 2020.
This triumvirate envisions a not too distant future in which there could be a mass market for outer space travel and tourism.
Bezos and Musk have a similar concept: launching people and payloads into space. Branson’s space venture, Virgin Galactic, is focused on suborbital tourism. Instead of launching rockets vertically from the ground, its spacecraft is flown to 50,000 feet by WhiteKnightTwo, a dual-fuselage jet from which the ship detaches “before firing up its rocket motor and beginning a near-vertical ascent to about 300,000 feet.”
Bezos established Blue Origin in 2000 with a goal similar to Musk’s: use rocket boosters that could be recycled for repeat launches. Bezos’ corporate vehicle, The Kent, operated in total secrecy from Washington state until 2003; Bezos had been tight-lipped since then — and until just before his successful flight.
Interviewed by CNN, Bezos — who is the world’s richest person — said that just like the US Postal Service paved the way for companies like Amazon, his vision is to “build a road to space so that people can travel on it.” He also made a pitch for sustainable development. He observed that industrial growth has been fueled by the “dirty stuff” of heavy industry that could be moved into outer space; then energy could be beamed down to earth and harnessed productively without polluting the atmosphere.
Spoken by the hard-driving entrepreneur who has parlayed Amazon into one of the biggest companies in the world through e-commerce, Bezos’ pronouncements could, indeed, command attention from investors, entrepreneurs and from the general public.
The Branson-Bezos expeditions are now heralded as markers for the end of government monopoly on space travel. Bezos waxed philosophical as he observed that his feat was achieved exactly 52 years after US astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon on July 20, 1969. Armstrong’s famous first words were, “This is one small step for man, a giant leap for mankind.”
He said that his venture — and parenthetically, those of Branson and Musk — are “small steps” that could pave the way to “giant leaps” considering that there are “tremendous resources on the moon” and — in Musk’s vision, in Mars, too — that could be transformed by leveraging the power of scalable technology.
Meantime, humankind holds its breath and awaits more exciting developments.