March 4, 2024

The anniversary of the Apollo moon landing was a small step for space travel, but a giant leap for space billionaires.

Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson vividly demonstrated this month that the ascent into the near sky seemed safe and, above all, a lark. The planet has so many problems that it is a relief to escape them by yourself for 10 minutes, which is roughly the length of the suborbital journeys offered by entrepreneurs through their respective companies Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.

But beyond the glare was a deeper message: the Amazonization of space has begun in earnest. What was once largely the domain of big governments is now increasingly the realm of big tech. The people who sold you the internet are now going to sell you the moon and stars.

Mr. Bezos, the founder of Amazon and still the largest shareholder, made it clear at the press conference after the flight on Tuesday that Blue Origin was open for business. Although tickets were not generally available, sales on flights reached nearly $ 100 million. Mr Bezos did not say what the price was, but added, “The demand is very, very high.”

That demand was there even before the world’s media flocked to Van Horn, Texas, to give full and commendable coverage of Mr. Bezos doing what Mr. Branson had done a week earlier in New Mexico. They saw a carefully staged event that featured the world’s oldest astronaut and the world’s youngest, crowned by a $ 200 million philanthropic giveaway.

Even Elon Musk, chairman of the board of rival SpaceX and sometimes a skeptic of Mr. Bezos’ space dreams, felt compelled to offer his congratulations. So did Mr. Branson, who secured the right to be the first to make his flight. Mr. Musk went to see Mr. Branson off.

All of these space activities are the beginning of something new, but also a repetition of the 1990s. At the beginning of this decade, the Internet was government owned by a select few, devoted to research and communication. In the end, thanks largely to Mr Bezos, it was a place where everyone could buy something. Over the next 20 years, technology grew into big tech, provoking cross-party fears that Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple are now too powerful.

Space could now embark on a similar journey from the frontier to big business.

For decades, NASA didn’t get enough money to do something as epic as the Apollo program. The Trump administration decreed a return to the moon by 2024. The Biden administration has endorsed the goal but not the date. If it happens at all, it’s with the support of companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. In contrast to the Apollo project in the 1960s, the next trip to the moon will be outsourced.

Smaller space companies are even more open to entrepreneurs.

“If you look at where space is today, especially when it comes to lower Earth orbit activity, it really is similar to what it was in the early days of the internet,” said West Griffin, chief financial officer of Axiom, a start-up that which aims to be the first commercial space station.

The commercialization of space began during the dot-com boom of the 1990s, but it took much longer to bear fruit. That month’s flights go back to 1996 when the nonprofit X Prize announced a competition: $ 10 million to be the first non-governmental organization to build a reusable starship that could take someone to an altitude of 100 kilometers, or 62.5 Could bring miles and then do it again in less than two weeks.

The winning design in 2004 was SpaceShipOne, led by Burt Rutan, a space engineer who previously designed the Voyager aircraft that flew around the world without stopping or refueling. It was funded by Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft who died in 2018.

The X Prize also piqued Mr. Branson’s interest. In 1999 he acquired Virgin Galactic Airways and licensed SpaceShipOne technology. Mr Branson hoped that a larger version could take up commercial flights within three years. Instead, it took 17 years.

A growing ecosystem of startups is trying to commercialize space by building everything from cheaper launch technology to smaller satellites to the infrastructure that makes up the “picks and shovels” of the space gold rush, as Meagan Crawford, managing partner of the Venture capital firm SpaceFund says it is.

“People look around and say, ‘There’s this robust space industry. Where did that come from? ‘”Said Ms. Crawford. “Well, it was built methodically and purposefully and it has been a lot of hard work over the last 30 years to get us here.”

According to space analyst Bryce Tech, investors invested $ 7 billion in funding space startups in 2020, double what it was two years earlier.

“What we are all trying to do now is what Jeff and Richard and Elon did 20 years ago, which is to build great companies, except that we are building businesses in space from the start and they are building their businesses on Earth. ” said Chris Kemp, the CEO of Astra, a startup focused on smaller, cheaper, and more frequent product launches.

The first space race, which spanned the 1960s and then ran out of breath in the 1970s, pitted a cheeky US government against a malicious and graceful Soviet Union. The Americans won this competition despite critics arguing that this was all a mistake at a time when so many domestic issues required attention and money.

This time? Pretty much the same, though it’s personal now. A petition demanding that Mr. Bezos not be allowed to return to Earth drew 180,000 virtual signatures. Massachusetts Democrat Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted, “It is time for Jeff Bezos to go into business here on earth and pay his fair share of taxes.”

Mr Musk tweeted a defense of space projects written in a laconic style reminiscent of the poet EE Cummings:

attack the space attack

may not understand

Space represents hope

for so many people

The tweet drew more than a quarter of a million “likes”, although reactions like this: “Nobody attacks space. We’re attacking billionaires who have amassed huge fortunes on the back of an exploited workforce. “

In an interview with CNN on Monday from the launch site in Texas, Mr. Bezos said his critics were “largely right”.

“We have to do both,” he said. “We have many problems in the here and now on earth and we have to work on them. And we always have to look to the future. “

But it’s clear which perspective gets his attention. As the senior in his high school class in 1982, Mr. Bezos spoke about the importance of creating lives in huge free-floating space colonies for millions of people. “The whole idea is to preserve the earth,” the Miami Herald quoted him at the time, adding that his ultimate goal was to “turn the planet into a vast national park.”

Mr Bezos said almost the same thing this week. It was a utopian dream with lots of intricate moving parts – just like, on a smaller scale, the idea of ​​a retailer selling everything to everyone and delivering it in hours. And to almost everyone’s surprise, he did it.

Mr. Branson has launched another space offshoot called Virgin Orbit, which brings small payloads into orbit. He did not hint at grandiose visions like Mr. Musk and Mr. Bezos for the spread of civilization in the solar system.

Mr. Musk’s Mars dreams began with a little quixotic search: 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. Even options in Russia were out of reach. So in 2002, Mr. Musk founded SpaceX.

Today he wants to send people to Mars, not plants. SpaceX is currently developing Starship, large enough to handle the trip, and Starlink, a satellite internet constellation aimed at generating the profits needed to fund the Mars plans.

In pursuing these goals, the company has grown into 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 are flying the reusable Falcon 9 launcher into orbit.

NASA recently placed an order with SpaceX to use their Starship prototype for the lunar program. The contract was challenged by Blue Origin and another company, Dynetics. With all of the camaraderie shown this week, the billionaires play to win.

Kenneth Chang contributed to the coverage.