The anniversary of the Apollo moon landing marked a small step for space travel, but a giant leap for space billionaires.
Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson vividly demonstrated this month that it seemed safe and above all a lark to fly to the near reaches of the sky. The planet is in so much trouble that it’s a relief to even escape it for 10 minutes, which was roughly the length of the suborbital rides offered by the entrepreneurs through their respective companies, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.
But beyond the glare was a deeper message: the Amazonification of space has begun in earnest. What was once largely the domain of big government is now increasingly the domain of Big Tech. The people who sold you the internet will now sell you the moon and the stars.
Mr. Bezos, the founder of Amazon and still the largest shareholder, made it clear in Tuesday’s post-flight press conference that Blue Origin was open for business. Although tickets were not widely available, flight sales were already approaching $100 million. Mr Bezos did not say what the price was for each, but added: “Demand is very, very high.”
That question was there before the media of the world flocked to Van Horn, Texas, for elaborate and laudatory reports about Mr. Bezos doing something Mr. Branson had done in New Mexico the week before. They saw a carefully orchestrated event, featuring the world’s oldest ever astronaut and the world’s youngest along for the ride, topped off with a $200 million philanthropic giveaway.
Even Elon Musk, chief executive of rival SpaceX and sometimes a skeptic of Mr. Bezos, felt compelled to offer his congratulations. So did Mr. Branson, who got bragging rights by making his flight first. Mr. Musk was going to say goodbye to Mr. Branson.
All this space activity is the start of something new, but also a repeat of the 1990s. At the beginning of that decade, the Internet was government property for research and communication for a few. In the end it was, more than anyone else, thanks to Mr. Bezos a place for everyone to buy things. Over the next 20 years, tech grew and became Big Tech, raising fears that Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple are now too powerful.
Outer space could now embark on a similar journey from frontier to big business.
For decades, NASA didn’t get enough money to do something as epic as the Apollo program. The Trump administration has declared a return to the moon by 2024. The Biden administration has endorsed the target, but not the date. If it does, it will be with the help of companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. Unlike the Apollo project in the 1960s, the next trip to the moon is outsourced.
Smaller space ventures are even more open to entrepreneurs.
“If you look at where space is today, especially with regard to lower Earth orbit activity, it’s really similar to the early days of the Internet,” said West Griffin, Axiom chief financial officer, a start-up that focuses on building the first commercial space station.
The commercialization of the space began during the dotcom boom of the 1990s, but it took much longer to blossom. This month’s flights date back to 1996, when the nonprofit X Prize announced a competition: $10 million to the first non-governmental organization to build a reusable spacecraft that could take someone to an altitude of 100 kilometers, or 62.5 miles. bring it, and then would do it again in less than two weeks.
The winning design in 2004 turned out to be SpaceShipOne in an effort led by Burt Rutan, an aerospace engineer who previously designed the Voyager aircraft that flew around the world without stopping or refueling. It was funded by Paul Allen, a Microsoft co-founder who died in 2018.
The X Prize also piqued the interest of Mr. branson. He trademarked “Virgin Galactic Airways” in 1999, and licensed the SpaceShipOne technology. Mr Branson hoped a larger version could start commercial flights within three years. Instead, it took 17 years.
A growing ecosystem of start-ups is trying to commercialize space by building everything from cheaper launch technology to smaller satellites to the infrastructure that is the “picks and shovels” of the gold rush in space, such as Meagan Crawford, a managing partner at the venture capital firm SpaceFund, it says.
“People look around and say, ‘There is a robust space industry. Where did that come from?’” said Mrs Crawford. “Well, it’s built methodically and purposefully, and it’s been a lot of hard work over the last 30 years to get us here.”
Investors put $7 billion into funding space startups in 2020, double their numbers just two years earlier, according to space analytics firm Bryce Tech.
“What we’re all trying to do now is do what Jeff and Richard and Elon did 20 years ago, which is build great companies, except we build companies in space from scratch and they built their companies on Earth.” said Chris Kemp, the CEO of Astra, a start-up focused on offering smaller, cheaper and more frequent launches.
The first space race, which spanned the 1960s and then ended in the 1970s, pitted a brash American government against an evil and charmless Soviet Union. The Americans won that contest, though critics argued it was all a mistake at a time when so many domestic issues needed attention and money.
This time? Pretty much the same, though it’s personal now. A petition asking for Mr. Bezos not to return to Earth attracted 180,000 virtual signatures. Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat, tweeted“It’s time for Jeff Bezos to do business here on Earth and pay his fair share of taxes.”
Mr Musk a defense of space projects tweeted which is written in a laconic style reminiscent of the poet EE Cummings:
those who attack space
may not realize that
space represents hope
for so many people
The tweet attracted more than a quarter of a million “likes”, although also comments like this: “No one is attacking space. We are attacking billionaires who amassed enormous fortunes on the backs of an exploited workforce.”
In an interview with NewsMadura on Monday from the Texas launch site, Mr. Bezos said his critics were “largely right.”
“We have to do both,” he said. “We have a lot of problems in the here and now on Earth, and we need to work on that. And we should always look to the future.”
But it’s clear which perspective grabs his attention. Farewell to his high school class in 1982, Mr. Bezos spoke about the importance of creating a life in huge free-floating space colonies for millions of people. “The whole idea is to conserve the Earth,” The Miami Herald quoted him as saying at the time, adding that his ultimate goal was to “watch the planet turn into a huge national park.”
Mr. Bezos said much the same this week. It was a utopian dream with lots of complicated moving parts – much like, on a smaller scale, the idea of a retailer who would sell everything to anyone and deliver it within hours. And to the amazement of almost everyone, he made that work.
mr. Branson has started a new space offshoot, Virgin Orbit, which is launching small payloads into orbit. He has not alluded to grandiose visions like Mr. Musk and Mr. Bezos for the spread of civilization in the solar system.
Mr. Musk’s Mars dreams began with a little quixotic quest: He wanted to send a plant to Mars and see if it could grow there. But the cost of launching even a small experiment was prohibitive. Even options in Russia were out of reach. So, Mr. Musk founded SpaceX in 2002.
Today he wants to send people, not plants, to Mars. SpaceX is currently developing Starship, large enough to make the journey, and Starlink, a satellite internet constellation, which aims to generate the profits needed to fund the Mars plans.
While pursuing those goals, the company has become a behemoth in the aerospace industry. NASA relies on SpaceX rockets and capsules to send astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station, and private, government and military satellite operators fly the reusable Falcon 9 booster rocket into orbit.
NASA recently awarded a contract to SpaceX to use its Starship prototype for the lunar program. The contract was challenged by Blue Origin and another company, Dynetics. Despite all the camaraderie on display this week, the billionaires are playing to win.
Kenneth Chang reporting contributed.