Weekend Herald

The billionair­e space race is on

Is Jeff Bezos about to rocket to the front of the trillion dollar market — and win bragging rights, ask James Cook and Matthew Field

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The excitement on Jeff Bezos’ face was obvious. “I want to go on this flight because it’s a thing I’ve wanted to do all my life,” he said in a video posted on Instagram this week. “It’s a big deal for me.”

The world’s richest man, who has amassed a fortune of US$186 billion ($259b), this week revealed he would travel into space next month using a reusable rocket developed by his company Blue Origin.

His enthusiasm comes as little surprise; Bezos says he has dreamed of going into space since the age of 5. But sweeter still than achieving a childhood dream? Beating his billionair­e peers in their race to space.

The main challenger to Bezos’ potential crown is Elon Musk, whose company SpaceX is hoping to put astronauts on the moon by 2024, and Mars soon after. Sir Richard Branson has also been targeting a personal space flight as soon as next month, with rumours circulatin­g on social media that he was seeking to take a Virgin Galactic trip on the weekend of July 4 — 16 days earlier than the Amazon founder’s intended launch date.

Bezos, 57, is a self-confessed space fanatic, who once appeared in the film Star Trek Beyond in a cameo dressed as an alien, and set up Blue Origin, into which he funnels $1.3b from Amazon shares each year.

“You see it with a lot of the tech guys,” says Ashlee Vance, author of Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. “They’re of the generation of people who grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars and loads of sci-fi novels.

“Through a twist of good fortune, they’ve ended up as the wealthiest humans on the planet and actually have the resources to make their childhood dreams come true. It’s an expected outcome when engineers with a geeky bent have risen to the top of society.”

No wonder then that Bezos will celebrate stepping down from his chief executive role at Amazon next month by flying to space a fortnight later, on the anniversar­y of the Apollo moon landings.

For he, Musk and Branson, galactic travel is a battle of egos and wealth. According to Tim Fernholz, author of Rocket Billionair­es, both Silicon Valley founders “share the fundamenta­l view that going to space is vital for humanity. But their end goals differ substantia­lly.”

Bezos, he says, sees much of human industry moving into space while preserving Earth, such as with space mining. Musk, on the other hand, is dedicated to expansion into the stars as a fail-safe. In his own words, mankind risks “a giant war, a super volcano, or comet . . . we might just self-extinguish. And right now, civilisati­on is not looking strong.”

The rival companies have found themselves increasing­ly at loggerhead­s. In April, the US Government awarded a US$2.9b contract for its moon lander project to SpaceX, despite furious protests from Blue Origin. It has already launched more than 120 rockets to Blue Origin’s 15, and is now Nasa’s preferred launcher.

The space market is expected to be worth about US$1 trillion by 2040 — while most of this is in industry, launches and satellites, space tourism is also taking off: 43 per cent of Brits say they would take an orbital flight (if safe return was guaranteed), according to YouGov survey.

Bezos, who will make the trip with his brother Mark, is also auctioning off the third seat in the spacecraft — for which bidding has topped US$4.4 million.

Following the flight, tickets will be on public sale — although prices have yet to be revealed.

It is not the only mission looking to attract the public: Japanese billionair­e Yusaku Maezawa has bought eight extra seats aboard Musk’s flight for his own mission, entitled dearMoon; SpaceX also has a US$76m contract to fly tourists to the Internatio­nal Space Station in 2022, while US billionair­e Jared Isaacman is donating three seats on board a SpaceX flight to civilians.

Later this year, 49-year-old Musk’s company plans to take four civilians into orbit on board its Dragon Crew spaceship, which will allow the “firstever crew of people who aren’t profession­al astronauts to orbit the Earth for three days”.

The Bezos brothers’ 11-minute flight will take them above the 100-kilometre Karman line (which marks the recognised boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space) and see them attain weightless­ness for two minutes, before their capsule drops back down to Earth. It is sure to be life-changing — for them, and the rivals intensifyi­ng their own efforts as a result.

Sir Richard, worth an estimated US$5 billion, plans to fly on a Virgin Galactic flight to suborbital space during the second half of this year, if not before. The 70-year-old’s company was founded in 2004, after Blue Origin and SpaceX, and is developing a spacecraft capable of sending clients on suborbital flights. A specialise­d carrier plane, WhiteKnigh­tTwo, will help take its SpaceShipT­wo to the edge of space, where passengers will enjoy views of Earth during “true, unencumber­ed weightless­ness”.

It completed its third test flight to the edge of space last month, and plans to send tourists into space next year; some 600 people have booked a seat, each costing US$280,000 to US$350,000.

Musk, whose net worth comes in at US$210 billion, is gearing up to go far bigger, working on orbital flights that would cost millions of dollars and send people much further into space. “I’ve said I want to die on Mars, just not on impact,” he said in 2013; in May, SpaceX successful­ly tested a landing of its heavyweigh­t 49m Starship rocket, which he believes could reach the red planet by 2026. (Nasa points to a more conservati­ve 2033 timeline.)

So, who will be victorious in the race for space victory?

“It would seem that Elon Musk is ahead at the moment,” says Shagun Sachdeva, a space consultant at Kosmic Apple, which works with space start-ups. “However, Blue Origin can in no way be discounted as they have a very different and longerterm strategy. This space race is far from over.”

But with Bezos plotting to reach the Karman line next month, Musk and Branson have been left with their feet on planet Earth — at least, for now.

Through a twist of good fortune, they’ve ended up as the wealthiest humans on the planet and actually have the resources to make their childhood dreams come true.

Ashlee Vance, author

 ?? Photo / Bloomberg via Getty Images ?? Jeff Bezos plans to travel into space next month using a reusable rocket developed by his company Blue Origin.
Photo / Bloomberg via Getty Images Jeff Bezos plans to travel into space next month using a reusable rocket developed by his company Blue Origin.
 ??  ?? Richard Branson
Richard Branson
 ??  ?? Elon Musk
Elon Musk

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