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The Private Space Race

Nathan Reid looks at the intense rivalry between recent billionaire space entrepreneurs.

By Nathan Reid

In the midst of a global pandemic with mass protests occurring across the globe, the commercialisation of space has begun.

Space X’s first successful joint venture with NASA is only the first step in a long stair way to exploring the commercial possibilities of space travel. Elon Musk’s $33 billion company is funded entirely through private funds, and has a vision of setting a man on Mars by 2024 with a Moon base being a long-term goal along with the colonisation of the red planet.

The billionaire philanthropist has got long term grounded goals too, with floating refuelling stations above Earth and worldwide internet coverage through his Starlink Satellites, with $36 billion of personal wealth and the trusted backing of 100s of private investors, and some governments, he is well on his way of consolidating his company at the forefront of space travel and tourism. 

Elon Musk’s other business ventures include PayPal and Tesla. He founded the Boring Company in 2016, which aims to create underground tunnels for electric vehicles.

The game-changing innovation within Space X has been their reusable heavy lift rockets, the Falcon 9 and the soon to be used Falcon Heavy. The company has not been shy when it comes to showing off their reusable rocket capabilities. By utilising a landing pad in the ocean dubbed ‘Of Course I Still Love You’, Space X have cut the cost of their launches by 85%, lending more investment into Elon Musk’s lifetime goal of a human colony on Mars. 

However, the South African billionaire is not the only tycoon with their sights on long term space travel; Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has spent the past 15 years developing their rocket technology to allow a reusable fuselage and passenger seating area similar to that of the NASA space shuttle. Branson’s short-term view of Virgin Galactic is to fly to the very edge of space for tourists rather than supply governmental bodies with technology to achieve a long-termspace faring capabilities. 

Virgin Galactic plans on having its maiden voyage in the latter stages of 2020 and has already collected over $80 million in reservations for the first 600 seats, including Brad Pitt and Princess Beatrice. The tickets, which first went on sale in 2012, initially cost £200,000 which then rose to £250,000 in 2013 after delay’s due to rocket failure. Today, the ticket includes 4-days of training which will culminate in a 90-minute flight 110km above the Earth. 

Virgin Galactic already has a purpose-built launch platform and test facility in New Mexico and is the first company to get certified by the FAA for commercial space travel.  They have also signed an agreement with NASA to provide training for private astronauts and broker flights to the ISS for them. The agreement strengthens the current doctrine that space is open for business for the right price. 

Another partner in the agreement is Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin company. The company was set up in 2000 and is 100% funded by Bezos through selling $1 billion of Amazon stock to keep the venture alive. Blue Origin is less focused then Space X and Virgin Galactic as it will be attacking on 2 fronts in both space tourism and commercial satellite launch. The company similar to Virgin Galactic have yet to provide a price for their space tourism programme and was due to launch later this year, but it is unknown how the coronavirus pandemic will affect the plans. 

In September 2017, Forbes described Bezos as “far richer than anyone else on the planet”. The Amazon founder is the richest person in modern history.

Three of the richest billionaires in the world are currently leading a charge into space which has not been seen since the Space Race of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The difference this time is that it is not between governments of sovereign states, it is between companies with the end goal being the resources currently untapped above our atmosphere. While many of us look in marvel at how they are achieving this goal; even the President of the United States went to Cape Canaveral to watch the launch of Space X’s Dragon rocket to the ISS on June 1st we must not forget that there are many outspoken critics of this type of consolidation of space. 

The most notable critic has been Buzz Aldrin who has previously critiqued Elon Musk and Space X for their ambitious plans to put a man on Mars by 2024. In 2017 while at a Space Conference he summarised a meeting with musk in 2014 “ it seemed as though he hadn’t given that a whole lot of thought” when discussing what would happen once you have a man on Mars. Aldrin continued “He’s a transportation person, He’s not a housing person. He’s a builder of towers.” 

Branson and Bezos are no strangers to criticism from both the general public and governmental figures. In 2014 Virgin Galactic’s VSS Enterprise suffered an inflight brake up which resulted in the pilot being seriously injured and the death of the co-pilot. Branson came under fire because his company was using outdated equipment on the Spaceship and both pilots lacked proper training. While Bezos has been criticised for his lack of foresight with Blue Origin, they have an almost unlimited source of funding which should put them at closer to Space X, however they routinely miss their deadlines and targets due to either outdated equipment, lack of development and lack of focus. 

Governmental and intergovernmental space agencies should not show animosity to these private companies. It may not be the way some hoped space exploration should be handled however it is showing progress and as a result they should be given the opportunity to fulfil their mandate. In fact the UK has just granted planning permission to a spaceport in the Scottish Highlands where 12 rockets from both the private and public sector will be launched yearly by 2024.

In a cliché way, we are destined to leave this planet and as the late Stephen Hawking stated “We have 100 years to leave Earth or we will perish here”.

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