Walking their own paths towards a miracle beyond our skies are three wealthy men whose dreams of the constellations are now coming true.
REO Speedwagon’s 1978 hit “Time for Me to Fly” was probably meant as a metaphor. Some 40 years later, however, three powerful men took those words quite literally. Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk have everything they could ever want on Earth, so now they’re turning to the celestial body to satiate their ambitions. Two of the triumvirate launched into outer space within weeks of each other, while the third had sent his third human space flight to the International Space Station just months earlier.
This modern-day retelling of the three wise men who went in search of the newborn messiah has the entire world in wonderment as we now contemplate an idea that had previously been the stuff of dreams – space travel for ordinary people.
Right around the turn of the century, Richard Branson, who owns the Virgin brands of businesses, took the reins of an Ansari X Prize-winning project by US aerospace company Scaled Composites called Tier One, which was able to launch a reusable spacecraft called SpaceShipOne via its launcher White Knight One. This formed the basis for Virgin Galactic’s later iterations, including the most recent VSS Unity flight in July 2021, with the goal of ultimately providing suborbital space tourism and intercontinental space flight.
For the flamboyant 71-year-old, it was the culmination of a 17-year journey. Branson will always be known in history as the first billionaire to fly his own rocket into outer space. “I’ve wanted to go to space since I was a kid, and I want to enable hopefully hundreds of thousands of other people over the next 100 years to be able to go to space,” he told the BBC.
He didn’t wait long to move forward. After that July flight, Virgin Galactic has opened ticket sales for future trips to the edge of space, with seats starting at US$450,000 each – up significantly from the US$200,000 to US$250,000 the firm charged previously.
Axiom Space, a commercial space station that hosts a laboratory and residential infrastructure, estimates that a ten-day trip will run about US$55 million for each astronaut, private or otherwise. However, by many accounts, this number varies. NASA, for example, pays Roscosmos more than US$81 million for a round-trip journey to the Soyuz capsule.
For Amazon kingpin Jeff Bezos, who started his Blue Origin space programme barely six years after building the world’s most popular online store, it was a boyhood dream come true (like most boys who watched Star Wars) when he took off in his New Shepard rocket past the Kármán line, giving his passengers and himself, a taste of true zero gravity that lasted for all of 11 minutes before returning home.
Upon landing, the foursome – Bezos, his brother Mark, astronaut Wally Funk and teenager Oliver Daemen – spoke to the press. Bezos was visibly excited. “My expectations were high and they were dramatically exceeded,” he gushed to the crowd in Texas. “The most profound piece of it for me was looking out at the Earth and looking at the Earth’s atmosphere.”
His dreams, however, extend beyond a short hop to the great beyond. Bezos wants to make space travel more accessible and less expensive, investing hugely in building reliable and reusable launch vehicles that can perform vertical take-off and landing (VTVL). His vision is to set the stones for building a space habitat where humans can live in outer space and reduce the carbon burden on our planet.
“We’re working to build a road to space so that our kids and their kids can build the future, and we need to do that,” Bezos explained. “We need to do that to solve the problems here on Earth. The whole point is this is the only good planet in this solar system. We’ve sent robotic probes to all of them – this is the only good one, I promise you. We have to take care of it; this is how it starts.”
Looking even further yonder is the Tesla magnate and CEO of SpaceX – the iconoclastic Elon Musk. Not satisfied with simply going to space, Musk wants to take humanity to Mars and colonise it to make it habitable. “We don’t want to be one of those single-planet species; we want to be a multi-planet species,” he remarked after the company launched its second Crew-2 mission to orbit (and third overall) on April 23 this year.
An engineer and dreamer, the South African-born entrepreneur made his riches by starting up PayPal. He sold it for US$180 million and invested almost the entirety of his fortune into a Tesla startup, which nearly failed at the outset. With his remaining dollars, he managed to transform Tesla into a mass-market product. With market sentiment rising, it soared to become one of the fastest-growing tech unicorn companies in the world – and made him one of the planet’s richest individuals in the process.
In that same spirit of derring-do and wonder, Musk looked to the skies for his next adventure and SpaceX was born in 2002. Now, almost two decades on, it has made giant leaps and bounds into space transportation, having been the first commercial space programme to send astronauts to the International Space Station and launching his reusable launchers way before Bezos showcased his in that July 20th flight.
Winning a US$2.9 billion contract from NASA to reignite American missions to the moon was a big win for SpaceX, as Blue Origin had also been fiercely battling for the right to do so. “It’s been now almost half a century since humans were last on the moon – that’s too long,” said Musk after SpaceX launched its Crew-2 mission into orbit. “We need to get back there and have a permanent base on the moon – again, like a big permanently occupied base on the moon. And then build a city on Mars to become a space-faring civilisation, a multi-planet species.”
To do that, the company began construction of Starship in 2019, which is an enormous stainless steel rocket that, when completed and tested, can launch cargo and people on missions to the moon and Mars. Current Starship prototypes stand at about 45 metres tall and each one is powered by three Raptor rocket engines.
Musk has previously estimated that it will cost about US$5 billion to fully develop Starship, although SpaceX has not disclosed how much it has spent on the programme to date. The company has steadily raised funds in the past few years to fund both Starship and its similarly ambitious Starlink project, aided by Google, with more than 4,000 satellites providing global internet coverage. SpaceX’s valuation at about US$74 billion makes it one of the most valuable private companies in the world today.
Musk remains “highly confident” that SpaceX will land humans on Mars by 2026, remarking last December that it’s an achievable goal “about six years from now.” SpaceX has many milestones to go before Starship can carry passengers, though, and the rocket has yet to reach orbit. Musk last year said that the company will fly “hundreds of missions with satellites before we put people on board.”
Though he hasn’t flown on any of his own spacecraft, Musk has sent multiple aspiring and active astronauts, both commercial and governmental, into space. On September 15, Tusk’s SpaceX marked one of its biggest milestones yet as it blasted its first chartered passenger rocket, Inspiration4, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center into orbit. On board was a four-person crew made up entirely of civilian tourists – including one billionaire – who spent three days on the 13-foot-wide capsule as they journeyed around the Earth.
By May this year, SpaceX had used two separate first-stage boosters, B1049 and B1051, nine and ten times respectively. These reusable launch vehicles highlight Musk’s success at creating cost efficiency for space travel and he has gone on to say the company will continue to push the fleet leader, B1051, past the original goal of ten flights.
In the meantime, the rest of the world can look forward to travelling to space for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are expected to begin flying private paying customers next year. However, while passengers flying with both companies would go to space by the US Federal Aviation Administration’s definition, a trip with SpaceX would last a lot longer and go further. For example, this translates to a Virgin Galactic passenger spending 0.04 percent as much time in space as on a SpaceX trip, while a ride with Musk’s company is expected to cost roughly 100 times as much. In real terms, that means paying US$450,000 versus US$40 million – not a sum many of us would be willing or able to stump up.
Branson’s deal has been based in his belief in (relatively) low-cost transit. One only needs to look to his Virgin Atlantic business for reference; Virgin Galactic is merely taking that one step further by providing intercontinental suborbital flight that reduces travel time phenomenally while offering a view to die for. Meanwhile, Bezos’s Blue Origin is developing a new Project Jarvis as of July this year, which will build a fully reusable second stage for the New Glenn orbital launch vehicle that will drastically reduce cost for space travel.
And Musk? Apparently, he has decided to ride along with one of his buddies and has paid a US$10,000 deposit to fly on his good friend’s Virgin Galactic roundtrip experience. It’s pocket change for the multi-billionaire, for sure.
Fifty-two years after Neil Armstrong first stepped foot on the moon, a new age has dawned. For those who can afford it, the opportunity to go to space and see the Earth from above is both chillingly exciting and humbling in the way they’ll forever look at the world’s beauty and fragility.