A multi-billion dollar race for space
Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, managed to travel to space yesterday with his space tourism company Blue Origin. But he's not the only billionaire in the space race.
Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and the richest man in the world, yesterday managed to travel to space with his new space tourism company Blue Origin. But he's not the only billionaire to exploit off-Earth travel. His two strongest rivals are Richard Branson, creator of Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk with his Space X.
Virgin Galactic is the evolution of Virgin Atlantic, Richard Branson's low-cost airline that succeeded with transatlantic flights until 2010. During the pandemic, it finished in bankrupt, but just in time for its new challenge: space tourism at a low price if compared with the rates of its competitors.
How to make space travel cheaper? Branson first tested the Spaceship Two in 2004, a small plane but with a rocket engine and capacity for six passengers and two pilots. The spacecraft won the Ansari X Award, the $ 10 million award given by the X Prize Foundation, which is dedicated to encouraging research for tourist flights into space.
Then came another model that disintegrated in 2014 during a test in the Mojave Desert. One of the pilots managed to save himself after parachuting and the other died. And now he has launched Spaceship Two, which takes off from the New Mexico desert.
His secret weapon is the White Knight, a four-engine, winged transport from which the ship hangs and lifts it to 15,000 meters. Once hit, he lets go of the Spaceship Two and it falls for a few seconds before activating the engine that makes it 4,000 kilometers per hour up to 100 kilometers and beyond. Going down, returning to 15,000 meters, the ship descends like an airplane in circles until landing again in the desert of New Mexico.
The experience Virgin Galactic wants to sell is to see the curve of the Earth and experience the lack of gravity for a few minutes.
Elon Musk's company would be chosen by those who are concerned about sustainability. Space X has specialized in the recovery of its rockets and some of them have flown up to eight times, thus reducing the cost of each trip.
Musk is years ahead of his competitors and is already rehearsing trips to the Moon with his new Starship. It is not a bluff: NASA has awarded it a contract to be a descent vehicle to the surface of our satellite. That will not be a trip for tourists, but the Space Adventures company does prepare flights around the Moon for which it already has a candidate, a Japanese billionaire, who will be able to make the flight in 2023.
He wants to go much further and defines himself as a future settler of space. It is not a bluff either, because last January he managed to put 143 satellites into orbit. And although he has not yet embarked on any Space X flight, his most famous statement is "I'd like to die on Mars, just not on impact".
If the first space race was a long political confrontation between two superpowers, the current one is a competition between white super-rich men. A sign of the times.