Billionaire space race

Billionaire space race

The players in the new space race are egotistical billionaires, but their ambitions are surprisingly grounded 

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Long read

Sam Portillo

So much has changed since ’72. The history that has transpired since reads like a condensed version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, which itself released in 1989. 

Vietnam, the collapse of the ‘Communist Bloc’, Reagan… a different kind of ‘trouble in the Suez’ in March 2021, when the Ever Given cargo ship blocked the international trade canal for six days. England’s ‘new queen’ is the longest serving British monarch in history and Brooklyn, sadly, has no longer got a winning team.

The world is a wildly different place today than it was in 1972. For the tech-savvy tradition-benders of the twenty-first century, such a time may appear prehistoric, its technology primitive and culture antique.

Even the eighties were the future then. 

The point is, five decades in the modern age is an epoch. Five decades separated the muddy trenches of the First World War and the scorched forests of Vietnam. Five decades separated the prohibition of racial segregation in the U.S. and Barack Obama’s election to the Senate. Whole countries have come into the world and died in such a span. And in the fifty years since astronauts last walked on the Moon, well… we haven’t been to the Moon.

The news in recent years has been sprinkled with headlines of billionaires Bezos and Branson flying to the upper climes of the atmosphere. The Amazon founder even brought his brother and Star Trek’s own Captain Kirk (William Shatner) along for the ride. Between these quirky stunts, a new space race is underway. Five decades after NASA won the race to the Moon, it is now the scientists, designers and engineers on the payroll of billionaires who are fuelling the next step.

Humanity’s inherent outward curiosity lives on, but to call the progress of the last few decades a race would be inaccurate. Five national and multi-national space agencies collaborated for the construction of the ISS, a 79-metre long laboratory which sits in constant orbit around Earth and allows scientists to conduct a range of experiments in real space conditions. Ten probes have successfully landed on and been able to send data back from the red planet, Mars, and around twice as many from the surface of Earth’s stormy sister, Venus. 

NASA’s Curiosity rover takes a selfie on Mars in March 2021.

Besides the natural majesty of the planets, nothing is ever perfect. There are of course criticisms of the billionaires who have taken it upon themselves to get involved. The criticisms are fair, too, and generally come from people who want the best for the planet. The first and possibly most overt criticism is that the money could be spent on eradicating earthly problems, like finding cures for cancer, or anthropogenic climate change. Why not solve poverty itself?

Of all the people on our planet, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are the two of the richest. The former, who founded online retailer Amazon in 1994, uses the sale of his stocks to fund the Blue Origin space programme, on which he has committed to spending $1bn a year (approximately £726m).

The always-eccentric Elon Musk has seen his personal net worth rocket in the last two years, courtesy of a roughly 20 percent stake in electric vehicle company Tesla. Musk’s aspirations don’t stop at revolutionising the highway. Through the work of his other company, SpaceX, he wants humanity to become a multi-planetary species: on the Moon, on Mars, and maybe one day beyond that. The sky is no longer the limit. 

“We need to get back [to the Moon] and have a permanent base […] like a big permanently occupied base on the Moon. And then build a city on Mars to become a spacefaring civilisation,” he told followers and reporters in April.

Another reason that people disagree with this new cohort of stargazing billionaires is because, well – they’re billionaires. While Bezos and Musk vie for the title of the world’s richest person (£150-200bn), Richard Branson, who largely made his fortune through the Virgin telecoms company, has a measly estimated net worth of £3bn. Especially at a time of pronounced economic inequality, and following a pandemic which disproportionately punished the poorest, such wealth can make for grim reading.

In the same month, Musk took to Twitter to mock Bezos’s attempt to file legal claims against NASA for awarding a contract to SpaceX. “Can’t get it up (to orbit) lol,” he wrote, before posting an image of his rival’s Blue Moon lander where the name had been changed for comedic effect.

For some, jibes like this make a mockery of the very real and massive amount of money which the billionaires are throwing around. Is this really a ‘giant leap’ for humanity, or a vanity project undertaken by three very bored rich men?- a case of ‘my rocket is bigger than yours’, as Musk might quip.

To focus on who is spending the money, though, is to ignore what they – or more accurately, the scientists and engineers – are achieving.

Such is the level of expertise in the private sector that NASA (the spacefaring arm of U.S. Government) awarded SpaceX a contract to develop and operate two lunar landers in collaboration with their Artemis programme. The SpaceX engineers aim to make Starship fully reusable, making space travel more affordable and resource-effective in the long-term.

The SpaceX website notes that Starship rocket systems could complete international trips in a fraction of the time it takes conventional commercial flights: London to Los Angeles in 32 minutes, London to Hong Kong in thirty-four. 

While SpaceX rockets currently burn liquid methane and oxygen, Blue Origin is also working with liquid hydrogen. In effect, rockets burning hydrogen would pollute the air with steam. Rocket systems which prioritise reusability and clean energy – credit to Starship and BE-3 – will help to ensure that any space-bound future is green as can be.

Blue Origin want to realise a future where “millions of people live and work in space to benefit Earth”. Those last three words may read like white-washing – how can leaving Earth help it? – but the logic which underpins Bezos’s argument is surprisingly sound. On other worlds, there may be an abundance of material resources which are useful and valuable on Earth. The metal on an asteroid called 16 Psyche could be worth $10,000,000,000,000,000,000 (no, my keyboard did not break – that actually is ten followed by eighteen zeroes) – enough to buy Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and the entire global economy thousands of times. Next year, a Falcon Heavy rocket (SpaceX) will launch a NASA probe towards the asteroid, where they plan to arrive in 2026. There are likely deposits of useful materials and energy resources scattered across space; considering the current inertia among governments on Earth to ‘go green’, maybe it is time to turn to the stars.

Just this week, Blue Origin unveiled plans for an Earth-orbiting business station, Orbital Reef, which they plan to have operational by the end of the decade. The facility would be open for a range of activities, including film-making in real micro-gravity, and scientific research, and will also include a “space hotel”. The announcement from the private sector comes at a time when the Russian space agency fears that outdated equipment on the ISS could cause a major and possibly fatal incident and NASA looks for proposals for a replacement.

For Branson’s Virgin Galactic, the raison d’être is less about settling humanity on Mars and more about making space an achievable destination for tourists. As when Blue Origin took Bezos and Shatner on a trip, Galactic’s current flights fall short of the international definition for ‘space’. Still, passengers will be able to unbuckle their seatbelts and experience the feeling of weightlessness as they float around the cabin, taking in the view of the planet from above through seventeen windows. Tickets currently retail at $450,000. 

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson enjoys the weightlessness aboard his space plane.

Space tourism may be considered a self-indulgence, but the line between luxury and self-enrichment is fine. The boundaries move over time, and we should be thankful they do. In the past, sport and music have been considered unnecessary. A waste of time. Activities such as streaming or gaming are subject to the same cynicism today. What makes any of these more ‘essential’ than the experience of space and observing our home from a different angle? If anything, Branson’s vision of accessible space flight offers more pronounced benefits than the indulgences of yesteryear. Seeing the planet from the edge of space can offer whole new perspectives on life. What could be greater than that?

The whole space debate in fact can be reduced into one about the line between necessity and indulgence. Do Bezos, Branson and Musk need to throw their money at making space planes, rockets and stations? Not really. But what may seem an indulgence at present, future generations may regard as crucial innovations – interventions, even – which led our species towards a brighter destination.

Imagine the scenario where we find a large asteroid on a collision course with Earth. Or, for whatever reason – ice age, nuclear fallout, supernatural disaster – the world we love becomes inhospitable. For their work in making stronger, cleaner and reusable rockets, starting to democratise access to space and reviving the industry that makes it all happen, we may well herald these billionaires we love to hate as saviours.