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The Great Billionaire Space Race: From Patriotism to Tourism


When the USSR launched the first satellite into space in 1957, the period was soon labelled the “Sputnik crisis” and was defined by fear and anxiety for the US and many Western powers.

Anxieties continued when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to visit space in 1961, and a series of robotic missions saw the USSR reach the moon first, reaffirming the country’s technological dominance for the time period.

In the context of the Cold War and the ideological clashes that prompted it, the fierce competition to reach space turned Sputnik-1’s success into a symbolic testament to the Soviet Union’s superior capabilities.

Though the US was behind on the scorecard, the world stopped to watch the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. Neil Armstrong’s renowned “small step” quote was followed by his first act: to plant an American Flag on the Moon. This act also served as a symbolic message that the US was willing to compete.

What followed this in the following years however was rather unexpected. Rather than an acceleration, the space race morphed into a cooperative agreement between the US and the USSR. The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project 1975 (ASTP) was considered the final chapter of a space race rife with patriotism, disquietude, and elation.

The great billionaire space race

In the words of the American physicist Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill, “You don’t have to be NASA to be involved in space”.

These are words that will likely stand the test of time, evident in the evolution of the space race in the last decade from nations to firms.

Though other companies are involved, the three titans in the game share something in common: their CEOs are billionaires that have obtained their riches elsewhere and their venture goals start at space tourism and end at space colonies.

Elon Musk

When hearing the words “Space Colony” the first person that would spring to mind for many is Elon Musk and his venture project, SpaceX.

Since 2002, the company has been building rockets that can shuttle satellites into Earth’s orbit at tremendous speeds. It currently has the most powerful rocket in operation, also successfully transporting several astronauts to the International Space Station.

When SpaceX first figured out how to safely reuse their rockets, the company has managed to land a number of high-profile NASA and US Military contracts. In addition, SpaceX broke other records such as being the first to send a car into space.

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX

Elon Musk has been very critical of his competitors and their desire for profits, claiming that his goal is purely “becoming a space travelling civilisation and ultimately a multi-planet species”.

Yet, this statement should be taken with a pinch of salt. SpaceX has plans to send its first all-civilian rocket into space in September 2021, indicating that commercial space flight will also be on the cards for the firm.

Richard Branson

Whilst many watched the Euro 2020 or Wimbledon men’s finals, Richard Branson and his space venture, Virgin Galactic shot up 88 km above surface just over a week before Jeff Bezos and his spaceflight company Blue Origin planned to.

Though Virgin Galactic was founded in 2004, only 2 years after SpaceX, they are still significantly behind in terms of rocket capabilities.

It doesn’t appear that this is a problem however, as the magnate has expressed no desire to aide space colonies, meaning that Virgin Galactic’s future likely lies within space tourism and if colonies are to be established eventually, Virgin’s presence will most likely end at transport.

They have also had their share of mishaps during their efforts, including a testing incident in 2014 leaving one dead and one severely injured. Some fears (albeit some from the idea of being in space in general) have since manifested, as majorities of both men and women once asked in a survey claimed they wouldn’t fly to space for free with Virgin Galactic.

Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic crew completed a test flight to space on July 11

Regardless, Richard Branson’s sense of competition seems to be aimed more at Jeff Bezos rather than Elon Musk. The two had a minor clash when discussing the topic of the Kármán line, an internationally recognised boundary to space.

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), a global record-keeping body for aeronautics, defines the Kármán line as space beginning 100 kilometres (330,000 feet) above Earth’s mean sea level. Blue Origin weren’t convinced of Branson’s efforts of 88 km causing researchers to review what distance space really begins.

Yes, billionaires arguing over who flew higher is analogous to schoolboys arguing about who can run faster, but when billions are on the line and Virgin Galactic are an industry leader in moving satellites into space, the mind games are likely strategic.

For now, the rivalry makes sense, if SpaceX are less interested in profiting than its competitors like they claim, then they won’t really be treading on the toes of their competitors, leaving the two to battle it out.

Jeff Bezos

On the 20th of July, Jeff Bezos also made history by launching himself and 3 other civilian crew members into an altitude of 250,000ft for their first commercial space journey.

For a long time, Blue Origin LLC has been relatively secretive about its goals. Recently however, the world’s richest man has outlined his aims for the future of space flight, highlighting his aspirations for orbital space colonies and his concerns regarding climate change and the potential for an energy scarcity crisis.

As such, Jeff Bezos has spent the past decade privately developing reusable autonomous rockets that can be used for transportation of materials partly funded by a space tourism business.

Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, tests communications systems before the first flight of its New Shepard space vehicle. Credit: Blue Origin

Though the Federal Aviation Administration has actively changed their eligibility requirements on what it takes to be an astronaut, stating that neither Richard Branson nor Jeff Bezos are astronauts, this is unlikely to stop the tech mogul from achieving his goals of commercial space flight.

The company is also working with NASA to develop several projects, however the competition has since intensified following Blue Origin’s $2bn offer for a moon mission contract already offered to SpaceX.

Why the significance?

What some would call “Manifest Destiny” is inherently colonial and whilst many can argue with/against whether it is a good thing, it is difficult to argue that this space race is as significant for the pursuit of economic growth as the first space race was in the pursuit of symbolic dominance.

A moon colony comes with many benefits. Improvements in lunar research will guide future civilisations on how humans can adapt to space and the effects of low gravity. Further, a colony can facilitate the expansion into other planets and eventually even galaxies. Elon Musk has already expressed desire to start a colony on Mars.

Being the first to have a moon base will also open up a whole new avenue for economic expansion, both for the resource export economy and for expanding possibilities from the home country. The moon is abundant with many rare and precious materials that will be relatively easier/cheaper to transport back due to lower gravity.

Even though the territory of the moon is classified as “rez communis omnium” (i.e. for the entire community) there are no laws or agreements for how to distribute territories and there are only some agreements that international law still holds in space.

A likely outcome is that should a private firm be the first to set up a base on the moon, they will have full freedom to utilise the moon’s resources, which will likely bring inordinate amounts of domestic economic growth.

By being able to profit from commercial space flight to fund these projects, the giants in the game and even their smaller competitors have extremely appealing incentive to pursue these goals.

Further, this competition bring opportunity for NASA. Since most key players are based in the US and private firms tend to have lower costs of production, NASA and the US Military have an opportunity to utilise their budgets in other areas by outsourcing, ultimately leading to a mutually beneficial relationship.

Credit: Statista

Our planet has a finite amount of resources and a changing climate. These issues are likely to persist and increase throughout the next few centuries and so for many, space colonies are a necessary inevitability.

The expansion into space however brings its own new challenges. Turning space into a commodity is likely to encourage major economic and military institutions to get involved. With this, there is a high likelihood for new wars, more worker and resource exploitation and an increasing detachment to conditions on Earth.

Further, the political climate of a space colony is uncertain and intervention from Earth would prove more difficult. There are many logistical and pragmatic concerns with setting up an egalitarian society in space as an isolated colony because it becomes difficult to ensure that the psychological needs of the population will be met.

Concluding remarks

The evolved space race brings us to an exciting new frontier that leaves many to wonder at the possibilities of our future.

Whilst countries have been using tax revenues to fund their domestic space flight programmes, none have aimed to profit. Private commercial space flight brings a new area in the game and all three companies’ budgets are still a fraction of NASA’s.

Despite this, due to more specific goals that are less focused on research, it looks increasingly likely that the space tourism industry will be dominated by private firms. Should they evolve to the point where space colonies become viable, it will be private firms and their domestic economies that benefit the most.

Whilst we can bring to question whether this race is a battle of egos or whether these individuals have a genuine desire to further humanity’s reach, the end result is ultimately the same.

We are some time away from these possibilities, so it is perhaps more important for the time being to focus on fixing our domestic (global) political climate lest we want to risk a political crisis on the moon that would be incredibly difficult to deal with both logistically and financially.

As countries and firms alike rush to set up camp on the moon, considerations about what to actually do once we touch down are infinitely more important.

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