By Einthiri Mudili
For decades, three billionaire entrepreneurs–Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk–have been on a mission to usher in a new era of space exploration and travel. Through the creation of companies such as Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX, these three entrepreneurs may share some similarities but their visions for the future greatly differ.
Branson aims to dominate space tourism
Virgin Galactic was founded in 2004 by English Business Magnate Richard Branson, who was previously well known for creating Virgin Group and the Virgin Atlantic airline. Branson commenced with the plan to take paying customers on supersonic flights to the edge of space.
On July 11, 2021, Branson became the first of the three billionaire entrepreneurs to send himself to space in his own vehicle. He launched Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, a single-motor winged plane, from Spaceport America in Sierra County, New Mexico. VSS Unity reached an altitude of 282,000 feet, reached a top speed of 2,435 mph, and experienced weightlessness for about four minutes. Branson plans to seat a total of eight people on the Unity, charging approximately $250,000 for a 2.5 hour round trip ticket.
“We’re here to make space more accessible to all at all,” Branson said after the flight. “The mission statement that I wrote inside my spacesuit was to turn the dream of space travel into a reality for everybody.”
Bezos plans to industrialize space
Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, six years after starting Amazon. For years, the company operated in secrecy but on July 20, 2021, nine days after Branson’s flight, Jeff Bezos, alongside three other passengers, went to space and back on an eleven-minute ride aboard the rocket developed by his company, Blue Origin. Blue Origin’s capsule reached an altitude of 106 kilometers (16 kilometers higher than Branson’s) and accelerated to three times the speed of sound. While Branson’s flight required a pilot, Bezos’ capsule was completely automated and required no official staff on board.
Bezos described a future similar to the proposals of physicist and space activist, Gerard K. O’Neill who envisioned “giant cylinder-shaped space colonies that in great enough numbers would support far more people and industry than are possible on Earth.” Bezos, predicting a scarcity crisis, plans to send people to live and work in orbital space colonies to preserve Earth.
The company has various plans for its future including the construction of an orbital rocket, lunar lander, and constellation of internet satellites (similar to SpaceX’s Starlink).
Musk’s mission to Mars
Space enthusiasts are most likely to declare SpaceX to be the frontrunner of the billionaire space race. Although Musk may have lost the race to become the first billionaire to travel to space in his own ship, SpaceX’s accomplishments in the space industry far outshine those of Branson and Bezos. Founded in 2002, SpaceX was the first private company to send astronauts to orbit and now regularly takes NASA astronauts to the International Space Station; it has already deployed more than 1500 satellites in the Starlink constellation to provide internet service everywhere; and is currently developing a rocket called Starship for missions to Mars. While Bezos and Branson have focused on the commercialization of space, Elon Musk has focused on colonizing Mars.
Musk has stated that he remains “highly confident that his company will land humans on Mars by 2026.”
The question of who’s winning the race to space is a difficult one to answer. Does winning mean the first billionaire to travel in his own ship to space? Does it mean the company to reach the farthest point in space? Or does it mean the first company to send a ship to space that can orbit? Each billionaire has achieved different goals. However, for NASA, competition among billionaires is exactly what it hoped for.