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Space Cowboys: Musk, Bezos And The Billionaire Space Race

As the spotlight shines back on space, Outlook covers perhaps the most famous narrative in space news today, of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and their space-exploring billionaire compatriots

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A SpaceX rocket re-entering the Earth's atmosphere
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“Many people have said that the fastest way to make a small fortune in the aerospace industry is to start with a large one” – Elon Musk

The private whimsies and often petty competitions between billionaires in the modern era have captured popular imagination for a while. It is amusing to watch how the richest and most powerful men pit themselves against each other in seemingly petty shows of one-upmanship, from luxury yacht building to philanthropic endeavours. But no battle has captured popular attention as much as the space race. Not just because the leading faces are also two eccentric billionaires, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who head some of the most powerful companies on Earth, but also because of the vast and far-reaching implications of this battle fought on a frontier, which could potentially have vast and far-reaching implications for all of humanity.

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This rivalry, which has heralded the “Golden Age of Space Exploration”, has also drawn ire, with many questioning why the efforts of these men were on distant galactic frontiers when the climate battle was raging down below on Earth. With space tourism now a reality and finding many takers, many have dismissed this space race as yet another whimsical preoccupation of the planet’s wealthiest.

Is that all there is to it, though?  There is a larger picture at play, as they now have their targets set on Mars. Outlook sums up the behind-the-scenes picture, the larger and real efforts that the brazen Musk and more secretive Bezos and their companies are putting most of their resources into, as they set their sights on Mars, and beyond.   

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The glitz and glamour of the space race are unavoidable on our news feeds now, as rocket after rocket takes off and eccentric billionaires take to social media to trumpet these achievements to the cult-like followings they have built over the years. They are the most prominent, but they were not the first.

The original man of the dot-com boom, Bill Gates was one of the first to try his hand at this new avenue. Along with a Saudi prince and a telecom entrepreneur, Gates financed a new company called Teledisc which would operate massive satellite networks, providing voice and data services. However, Teledisc would end in bankruptcy before a single satellite was even launched.  Musk, Bezos and their contemporaries in space like Richard Branson with his own Virgin Galatic, it seemed would come much later in this nascent space as NASA, the US government’s pioneering body at the forefront of the space field, would begin to liberalise and open up to the private sector. Even then, many noted this was a space dominated by big government contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin who had years of experience in the aerospace industry, close ties to the government, and partnered with NASA and other agencies on many joint projects, and ridiculed the wild ambitions of the newest dot-com billionaires with their futuristic visions but very little to show for it at a practical level.

Silicon Valley’s tinkerers seemed to follow much later, or so it seems to the public imagination. To accept this explanation though, is to eschew their long-term vision and put it down to happenstance and change in market conditions. That was not the case; in fact, the current domination of Musk’s SpaceX and Bezos’ Blue Origin was the product of long-term planning and vision over decades. To illustrate, Bezos founded his Blue Origin in 2000, at the turn of the millennium. Musk followed suit two years later in 2002, incorporating his own Space Exploration Technologies which would later become SpaceX. This was long before the sector officially “took off” and morphed into what it is today with these companies pushing the space frontiers. At the time though, skepticism still prevailed among the cadres of engineers and veterans of aerospace about the arrival of the new money from the dot-com billionaires of the Valley. Sure, they had the funds, but rocketry was an entirely different matter. This skepticism prevailed, making the first hurdle for the new players to convince NASA and the other regulators that they could do just that and more, to win government contracts and bid for NASA projects.

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Although they had managed to convince NASA to award them some smaller contracts, the powers would wait and see how it panned out. The true turning point came in 2010 when SpaceX was the first to add glamour and lustre with the successful launch of the Falcon 9, a rocket that cost $62 million, or half as much as the orbital rockets marketed by competitors. That rocket would carry a manifest of $10 billion, provided by major satellite operators all over. But more importantly, after many setbacks and growing uncertainty, it proved that they could do rockets, and not only cheaper but also often better than anyone before. This opened the doors for private space exploration, heralding the new age. Soon, all three were sending up rocket after rocket, the prime being reached when SpaceX’s Dragon Spacecraft became the first commercial spacecraft to reach the International Space Station (ISS).  

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This would soon turn ugly, and the spotlight would centre on Bezos and Musk, and their personal rivalry eventually, as their companies would now go head to head for most contracts and bids. Tensions finally heightened in 2013. While SpaceX and Blue Origin were competing for NASA’s famous Launch Complex 39A, Musk would go on to say that the chances of unicorns dancing in the flame duct were greater than Bezos building a NASA-qualified rocket. This rivalry would now become an inedible part of the story.  

Musk and Bezos have since engaged in public disputes related to their space ventures. In 2013, Musk criticised Blue Origin's approach to reusable rockets, leading to a Twitter exchange between the two. More recently, in 2021, Blue Origin filed a protest against NASA's decision to award a lunar lander contract solely to SpaceX, prompting a legal battle between the two companies. The two now never miss a chance to take a snipe at each other. But their companies were looking far ahead.  

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Mars

In 2016, Branson and Virgin Galactic would unveil their new SpaceShip Two aircraft. His goal was to create the world’s first spaceline, taking people into orbit, for panoramic views of the Earth and making space tourism a reality. It found many takers and even Blue Origin began using suborbital space tourism, which was simply derided as bungee-jumping for the super-rich. Yet, Bezos didn’t view it as just publicity, he saw it as rocket practice for Blue Origin’s pipeline of projects. This was the first sign of how far ahead Blue Origin and SpaceX were looking.  They weren’t concerned with simply providing adventure tourism or being supply contractors to the space station for NASA and other space agencies, lucrative contracts which they had won in past years. Nor was this a sudden change in strategy. It would quickly become apparent that this had always been on the cards.  

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As early as 2005, when Bezos was unveiling plans to residents in Texas where Blue Origin would set up its bases, he spoke of “space colonisation”, a surprise to many present. Later in 2016, shortly after SpaceShip Two was unveiled, Musk would finally reveal plans to go to Mars during a speech at the International Astronautical Congress, laying out how he planned to set up a cargo line to eventually make human settlement possible on Mars.  

Forget suborbital tourism, Musk would put a price tag on Mars, telling the BBC, “Land on Mars, a round-trip ticket–half a million dollars. It can be done”.  This was no surprise either. Steve Davis, a SpaceX engineer recalled of Musk’s earliest memos, where he simply asked, “How much propellant do we need to get to Mars”. The ambitions for both had always been clear.  As both companies set their sights far beyond, Bezos would have the last jibe here, following Musk’s announcements, noting that “space is really easy to overhype…”. But if SpaceX were leading, Bezos was content to be the tortoise and wait for his moment. If the meaning of his comment was lost on anyone, it couldn’t be missed when the name of Blue Origin’s next rocket was unveiled. New Armstrong.  

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Here, Now and There

While the rivalry has been the new space race's most prominent storyline, Bezos and Musk have pushed the frontiers through their companies.  

They have made reusable rocket technology a thing of the present, helping cut down costs, and reduce the overall cost of space travel, opening the door for larger possibilities of exploration, and improving safety, making it practicality that man could now safely venture into space and return. In 2015, Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket became the first to land vertically after reaching space, thus relegating images of crash landings and horrific accidents to the past.

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In addition to landing significant contracts with NASA and other governmental agencies, the two have reduced American dependence on Russian rocketry, and paved the path for further lunar exploration, resurrecting lunar ambitions. SpaceX announced in 2018, that it had signed the first private passenger, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa to fly around the Moon aboard SpaceX's spacecraft.

NASA’s decision to resurrect Moon missions is thanks to the vast advancements made by these private players. Blue Origin, alongside Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, landed a NASA contract in 2020 to develop human lunar landing systems for the next planned moon missions, the Artemis program. An interesting aside here, the first Artemis astronaut planned to be sent back to the Moon is Dr Jonny Kim, a Harvard-educated doctor, decorated former US Navy SEAL, and now an Astronaut.

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Their aims aren’t just limited to the frontiers of space, and beyond. For example, more tangibly, on Earth, SpaceX’s Starling is a satellite constellation project aimed at providing global broadband internet coverage which involves the deployment of thousands of small, low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites that work together to create a network capable of delivering high-speed internet to even the most remote areas.

So, while it is easy to get lost in the vitriolic and often public spats between the two eccentric billionaires, and their Twitter exchanges, and dismiss their far-off projects of Mars colonisation as detached from reality, the fantasies of billionaires, are not the whole narrative.  SpaceX has transcended corporate America in the way that NASA had once transcended government bureaucracy, became an institution of inspiration and embodies the limitless possibilities available to us. SpaceX leads through Musk’s daring, and its willingness to fail and keep failing till they get it right. Blue Origin are quieter, and more methodical, preferring to stay in the background, but they are not far behind. If SpaceX is the hare, Blue Origin are content to play the tortoise in this space race

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