On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, space travel took a small step forward, but space billionaires took a giant leap forward.
In a stunning demonstration earlier this month, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson demonstrated that soaring to the upper reaches of the sky appeared safe and above all, enjoyable. The world is beset by so many problems that it is a relief to be able to escape them for even a brief period of time, such as the 10 minutes provided by the suborbital rides offered by the entrepreneurs through their respective companies, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, respectively.
However, beneath the glitz and glam lay a more profound message: the Amazonification of space has begun in earnest. What was once primarily the domain of big government is now becoming increasingly the domain of big technology corporations. The same people who sold you the internet will now try to sell you the moon and the stars, as well as other things.
During a press conference following Tuesday’s flight, Mr. Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the company’s largest shareholder, made it clear that Blue Origin was open for business and that the company was ready to take on new customers. Sales of plane tickets were already approaching $100 million, despite the fact that they were not generally available for purchase. Mr. Bezos did not specify how much each item would cost, but he did say that “demand is extremely high” for them.
That demand existed even before the world’s media descended on Van Horn, Texas, to provide extensive and adoring coverage of Mr. Bezos performing an act similar to one Mr. Branson had performed in New Mexico just a week earlier. They witnessed a meticulously orchestrated event, complete with the world’s oldest astronaut and the world’s youngest astronaut accompanying them on the journey, which culminated in a $200 million philanthropic donation.
Even Elon Musk, the chief executive of Mr. Bezos’s rival SpaceX and a vocal critic of the billionaire’s space ambitions, felt compelled to express his congratulations. Mr. Branson felt the same way, and he gained bragging rights by being the first to board his flight. Mr. Musk arrived at the airport to see Mr. Branson off.
All of this space activity heralds the beginning of something new, but it is also a rerun of events from the 1990s. At the beginning of that decade, the internet was considered government property, and it was used primarily for research and communication among a select group of people. By the end, largely due to Mr. Bezos’ efforts, it had become a place where anyone could purchase goods. Over the next two decades, technology grew up and became Big Tech, causing widespread concern across the political spectrum that companies such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple have become too powerful.
It’s possible that outer space is now embarking on a similar journey from frontier to major industry.
NASA was unable to complete anything as monumental as the Apollo programme for decades due to a lack of funding. The Trump administration has set a deadline of 2024 for a return to the moon. The goal has been endorsed by the Biden administration, but not the deadline. Companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin will be instrumental in making it happen, if at all it does happen. In contrast to the Apollo project, which took place in the 1960s, the next mission to the moon will be carried out by a third party.
Entrepreneurs have even greater opportunities in smaller-scale space ventures.
According to West Griffin, chief financial officer of Axiom, a start-up that aspires to build the world’s first commercial space station, “If you look at where space is today, especially with respect to lower earth orbit activities, it really is similar to the early days of the internet.”
Commercialization of space began during the 1990s dot-com boom, but it took much longer to come to fruition than many people anticipated. In 1996, the nonprofit organisation X Prize announced a competition: $10 million would be awarded to the first nongovernmental organisation to build a reusable spacecraft that could transport someone to an altitude of 100 kilometres, or 62.5 miles, and then return to Earth in less than two weeks. The flights this month are a throwback to that competition.
Ultimately, the winning design in 2004 turned out to be SpaceShipOne, which was developed under the direction of Burt Rutan, an aerospace engineer who had previously designed the Voyager aeroplane, which was capable of flying around the world without stopping or refuelling. It was financed by Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft who passed away in December of last year.
The X Prize piqued the interest of Mr. Branson as well. In 1999, he registered the trademark “Virgin Galactic Airways” and obtained a licence to use the SpaceShipOne technology. Mr. Branson hoped that a larger version of the plane would be ready to fly commercially within three years. Instead, it took seventeen years.
Increasingly, a thriving ecosystem of start-ups is attempting to commercialise space by developing everything from cheaper launch technology to smaller satellites and infrastructure, which Meagan Crawford, a managing partner at the venture capital firm SpaceFund, describes as the “pickaxes and shovels” of space’s gold rush.
‘There is this robust space industry.’ People are looking around and thinking to themselves. ‘How did that get there?'” Ms. Crawford expressed herself. The structure has been constructed methodically and with purpose, and it has taken a lot of hard work over the last 30 years to get us to this point.
Chris Kemp, the chief executive of Astra, a start-up focused on providing smaller, cheaper, and more frequent launches, explained, “What we’re all trying to do now is do what Jeff and Richard and Elon did 20 years ago, which is just build great businesses, except we’re building businesses in space from the beginning, whereas they built their businesses on earth.”
It was a brash and can-do United States government against a malevolent and charmless Soviet Union in the first space race, which lasted for most of the 1960s before fading away in the 1970s. The Americans were victorious in that competition, despite the fact that some critics argued it was all a mistake at a time when there were so many domestic issues that required attention and resources.
This time? Pretty much the same, although now it’s personal. A petition requesting that Mr. Bezos not be allowed to return to earth drew 180,000 virtual signatures. Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat, tweeted: “It’s time for Jeff Bezos to take care of business right here on Earth and pay his fair share in taxes.”
Mr. Musk tweeted a defense of space projects that was written in a laconic style reminiscent of the poet E.E. Cummings:
those who attack space
maybe don’t realize that
space represents hope
for so many people
The tweet drew more than a quarter million “likes” although also responses like this: “Nobody is attacking space. We’re attacking billionaires who amassed vast fortunes on the backs of an exploited work force.”
Speaking on Monday from the Texas launch site, Mr. Bezos said his critics were “largely right” in an interview with CNN.
“We have to do both,” he stated emphatically. “We have a lot of problems right now on Earth, and we need to work on them,” says the author. And we must always keep our eyes on the horizon.”
However, it is clear which point of view has captured his interest. As the valedictorian of his high school graduating class in 1982, Mr. Bezos expressed his belief in the importance of creating a life for millions of people in vast free-floating space colonies. “The whole idea is to preserve the earth,” he was quoted as saying at the time by the Miami Herald, who also reported that his ultimate goal was to see the entire planet “turned into a huge national park.”
This week, Mr. Bezos said something along the same lines. It was a utopian dream with many complicated moving parts, similar to the notion of a retailer that would sell everything to everyone and deliver orders within hours on a smaller scale. And, much to the surprise of almost everyone, he was able to make it work.
Mr. Branson has launched a new space subsidiary, Virgin Orbit, which is dedicated to launching small payloads into orbit. Mr. Musk and Mr. Bezos have not expressed grandiose visions for the expansion of civilization throughout the solar system, and he has not made any such statements.
It all started with a small, quixotic quest for Mr. Musk: he wanted to send a plant to Mars and see if it could survive in the hostile environment. However, even a small experiment would have been prohibitively expensive to launch. In fact, even Russian options were out of reach. As a result, Mr. Musk established SpaceX in 2002.
Today, he wants to send people to Mars rather than plants, as he did in the past. SpaceX is currently working on two projects: Starship, which will be large enough to make the journey, and Starlink, which will be a satellite internet constellation that will generate the profits necessary to fund the Mars plans.
As it works toward those objectives, the company has grown into a behemoth in the space industry. For transportation to the International Space Station, NASA enlists the help of SpaceX rockets and capsules, and private, government, and military satellite operators use SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 booster rocket to get their satellites into orbit.
NASA recently awarded a contract to SpaceX to use its Starship prototype for the moon programme, which will be carried out by the company. Blue Origin and another company, Dynetics, both filed lawsuits against the contract. Despite the apparent camaraderie on display this week, the billionaires are in it to win it.