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 clearly demonstrated this month that it was safe to fly to the close reaches of the sky and, above all, what appeared to be a lark. The planet has so many problems that it’s a relief to avoid them even for 10 minutes, which was about the length of suborbital rides offered by entrepreneurs through their respective companies, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.
But beyond the dazzle there was a deeper message: The Amazonization of space has begun in earnest. What was once the domain of big government on a large scale, is now rapidly becoming the domain of big tech. The people who sold you the internet will now sell you the moon and stars.
Mr. Bezos, the founder of Amazon and still its largest shareholder, clarified in a news conference after Tuesday’s flight that Blue Origin was open for business. Although tickets were not generally available, sales of flights were already approaching $100 million. Mr. Bezos did not specify what the price was for each, but added, “The demand is very high.”
The demand came even as the world’s media flocked to the extensive and adulterous coverage of Mr Bezos in Van Horn, Texas, which Mr Branson did in New Mexico a week earlier. He witnessed a carefully orchestrated event, with the world’s oldest astronaut and the world’s youngest along for the ride, a $200 million philanthropic gift.
Even Elon Musk, the chief executive of rival SpaceX and sometimes skeptical about Mr Bezos’ space dreams, felt compelled congratulate him. So did Mr. Branson, who got bragging rights by flying his first. Mr. Musk came to see Mr. Branson off.
All this space activity is the beginning of something new, but also a repetition of the 1990s. At the beginning of that decade, the Internet was for some a government asset devoted to research and communication. By the end, thanks to Mr. Bezos more than anyone, it was everyone’s place to buy things. Over the next 20 years, tech grew and became Big Tech, leading bipartisans to fear that Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple were now too powerful.
Outer space can now be embarked on a similar journey to big business from the frontier.
For decades, NASA didn’t get enough funding to do anything as epic as the Apollo program. The Trump administration decided to return to the moon by 2024. The Biden administration has backed the target but not to date. If this happens, 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 would be outsourced.
Small space ventures are even more open to entrepreneurs.
“If you look at where space is today, especially with respect to low-Earth orbit activities, it’s really akin to the early days of the internet,” said West Griffin, chief financial officer of Axiom, a start-up. The goal of building up the first commercial space station.
The commercialization of the space began during the dot-com boom of the 1990s, but it took longer to flourish. This month’s flights date back to 1996, when the non-profit organization X Prize announced a competition: $10 million to the first non-governmental organization to build a reusable spacecraft that would travel 100 kilometers, or 62.5 miles. Can take up to a height of miles, and then do. Again in less than two weeks.
In 2004 the winning design turned out to be SpaceShipOne, an effort led by Burt Rutan, an aerospace engineer who designed the first Voyager airplane that would fly around the world without stopping or refueling. It was financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who died in 2018.
The X Prize also piqued Mr. Branson’s interest. They trademarked “Virgin Galactic Airways” in 1999, and licensed the SpaceShipOne technology. Mr Branson hoped that a larger version could start commercial flights within three years. Instead it took 17 years.
A swelling ecosystem of start-ups are attempting to commercialize space by creating everything from inexpensive launch technology to small satellites that constitute the “pickaxe and shovels” of space’s gold rush, as Megan said. Crawford is a managing partner in the venture capital firm. SpaceFund, as it puts it.
“People are looking around, ‘This is the strong space industry. Where did that come from?'” Ms. Crawford said. “Well, it’s systematically and purposefully built, and the last 30 years to get us here A lot of hard work has been done over the years.”
Investors invested $7 billion in space start-ups in 2020, more than double the amount just two years ago, according to Space analytics firm Bryce Tech.
“What we’re trying to do now is what Jeff and Richard and Elon did 20 years ago, which is just building great businesses, except we’ve been building businesses in space from the very beginning and they did it on Earth. Build your business.” Chris Kemp, chief executive of Astra, a start-up focused on providing smaller, cheaper and more frequent launches.
The first space race, which spanned the length of the 1960s and then ran out of steam in the 1970s, pitted the United States government against a malevolent and lucrative Soviet Union. The Americans won that contest, though critics argued it was a mistake in an era when there were too many domestic issues that required attention and money.
This time? pretty much the same, although now it is personal. A petition requesting that Mr Bezos not be allowed to return to Earth Received 180,000 virtual signatures. Senator Elizabeth Warren, 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 in defense of space projects It was written in a concise style reminiscent of the poet EE Cummings:
people who attack space
maybe don’t realize it
space represents hope
for so many people
The tweet received over 1.25 million “likes” Although such reactions: “Nobody is attacking space. We are attacking billionaires who amassed immense wealth through an exploited workforce.”
Speaking Monday from the Texas launch site, Mr Bezos said his critics were “largely correct”. In an interview with CNN.
“We have to do both,” he said. “We have a lot of problems here and now on Earth and we need to work on them. And we always need to look to the future.”
But it is clear which approach deserves their attention. As the valedictorian of his high school class in 1982, Mr. Bezos spoke about the importance of creating life in vast free-floating space colonies for millions of people. The Miami Herald quoted him as saying at the time, “The whole idea is to preserve the Earth,” with his ultimate aim being to see the planet “turn into a giant national park.”
Mr. Bezos said the same thing this week. It was a utopian dream with many complex moving parts—like, on a smaller scale, the notion of a retailer that would sell everything to everyone and deliver within hours. And to the surprise of almost everyone, he did that.
Mr Branson has launched another space offshoot, Virgin Orbit, which is launching smaller payloads into orbit. He has not indicated the grand visions of Mr. Musk and Mr. Bezos to spread civilization to the solar system.
Mr. Musk’s Mars dream began with a slightly bizarre discovery: he wanted to send a plant to Mars and see if it could grow there. But the cost of starting even a small experiment was prohibitive. Options were out of reach even in Russia. That’s why Mr. Musk founded SpaceX in 2002.
Today he wants to send people to Mars, not plants. SpaceX is currently developing Starship, which is large enough to travel, and Starlink, a satellite Internet constellation, intended to generate the profit needed to finance plans for Mars.
As it pursues those goals, the company has become a giant in the space business. 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 reusable Falcon 9 booster rockets into orbit.
NASA recently awarded SpaceX a contract to use its Starship prototype for the Moon program. The contract was challenged by Blue Origin and another firm, Dianetics. For all the camaraderie displayed this week, billionaires play to win.
kenneth chang Contributed to reporting.