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From Branson to Musk: meet the billionaires leading the new Space Race

Spandan Sharma
11th Feb 2018
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“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

These words from John F. Kennedy’s iconic address to Congress on May 25, 1961, are popularly considered to be the firing gun that announced the start of the race to the Moon. Concerned by Soviet accomplishments in the preceding years – the first satellite in space (Sputnik) and the first human (Yuri Gagarin) – the United States stepped up its attempts to explore the vastness of space, leading to the Apollo programme, the landing on the moon, and an era of unprecedented research and investment into space travel. However, the Space Race actually began a few years before this.

On July 29, 1955, James C. Hagerty, the Presidential Press Secretary, announced that the United States intended to launch “small Earth circling satellites” between July 1957 and December 1958. Four days later, Soviet scientist Leonid I. Sedov spoke to international reporters at the Soviet embassy in Copenhagen, announcing his country’s intention to launch a satellite as well, in the “near future”. On August 30, 1955, Sergei Korolev, the ‘Chief Designer’ of Soviet rockets, managed to get the Soviet Academy of Sciences to create a commission whose purpose was to beat the Americans into Earth’s orbit. The Space Race was on in full swing.

Since those days, a lot has happened. Humanity has explored further than ever dreamed before, but human space travel has been largely limited to trips to the International Space Station and other near-earth space objects. However, a new breed of visionaries is now taking up the mantle to once again return humans to the stars. They have had varied approaches and degrees of success, but have refused to let setbacks stop their progress. We take a look at these new “space barons”, the billionaires leading the charge in a new Space Race:

(L-R): Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and Paul Allen.

Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic

High-flying business leader Richard Branson has a string of balloon- and surface-record breaking activities to his name. As the founder of airline Virgin Atlantic, Richard has previous knowledge of managing a fleet of flight vehicles, and he took this a step further by setting up Virgin Galactic – the world’s first commercial “spaceline” – in 2004. Virgin Galactic’s avowed goal is “to become the spaceline for Earth – democratising access to space for the benefit of life on Earth.”

Unlike competitors, Virgin Galactic is built on a commercial premise. It aims to build a fleet of commercial spacecraft that will provide suborbital spaceflights to tourists and suborbital launches for missions into space. There are also plans for orbital human flight. The spaceline currently uses a spacecraft called SpaceShipTwo that is launched in the air from a mother-ship called White Knight Two.

Virgin Galactic has had a mixed performance record. The company’s spacecraft have successfully completed test flights at altitudes necessary to understand the impact of suborbital human flight. However, there have also been major setbacks, such as an accident in 2014 when spacecraft VSS Enterprise exploded in mid-flight, killing the co-pilot. However, despite the fallout from this event, Richard still believes in the future of his venture, and he’s not alone. Saudi Arabia injected $1 billion into the company and sister venture Virgin Orbit in October 2017. In the same month, Richard wrote on his website, “We are now just months away from Virgin Galactic sending people into space and Virgin Orbit placing satellites around the Earth.”

Paul Allen, Stratolaunch Systems

Not many people know that Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is also the founder of Stratolaunch Systems, a Washington-based company developing an air-launch-to-orbit system for spaceflight. Founded in December 2011, the project comprises of three primary components – a carrier aircraft (called the Stratolaunch Carrier) built by Co-founder Burt Rutan’s company Scaled Composites, a payload launch vehicle that is propelled into orbit from the carrier aircraft, and an integration system to combine the two.

Stratolaunch was initially supposed to partner with SpaceX for designing the space vehicle components of the system. However, the collaboration ended in 2012; former President Charles Beames explained in an interview, “SpaceX was a partner, and like a lot of partnerships, it was just determined that it was best we went our separate ways – different ambitions. We were interested in their engines, but Elon and his team, they’re about going to Mars, and we’re just in a different place, and so I think it was a parting of the ways that was amicable.”

The system has yet to take flight, with the carrier system only completing fuelling and taxing tests in May and December 2017, respectively. However, the system has often been called one of the most “innovative spaceflight solutions” today, and the first test flights are planned for 2019, with a commercial launch tentatively scheduled for 2020.

Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin

The world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, has had his sights set on a space venture since the turn of the millennium. He founded aerospace manufacturer and spaceflight company Blue Origin in 2000. The company aims to enable private human access to space while reducing costs and increasing reliability. Its motto is “Gradatim Ferociter”, Latin for “Step by Step, Ferociously”, and that perfectly sums up its approach – incremental improvements from suborbital to orbital flight, with gradual developments along the way.

After previously successfully completing multiple suborbital flights in its vehicle New Shepard, Blue Origin is currently in the process of building its own heavy-duty reusable rocket, called New Glenn. The last successful New Shepard test flight was in December 2017, with a test dummy called Mannequin Skywalker; however, there have been no announcements of human test flights yet. The company expects to complete them towards the end of 2018, with paid suborbital flights beginning 2019.

Blue Origin is chiefly privately funded through Jeff’s own investments. In April 2017, he revealed that he was selling about $1 billion of Amazon stock every year to keep funding Blue Origin. The company has also worked on a few small contracts for NASA that have brought in some funding (US$25.7 million by the end of 2013).

Elon Musk, SpaceX

Elon Musk and his company SpaceX need no introduction. Founded in 2002 with the aim reducing costs of space transportation and eventually colonising Mars, SpaceX is the most well-recognised private aerospace manufacturer and space transport company in the world.

Over the years, SpaceX has had many successes, including launching the first privately funded liquid-propellant rocket to orbit (Falcon 1 in 2008); becoming the first privately funded company to successfully launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft (Dragon in 2010); the first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station (Dragon in 2012); the first propulsive landing for an orbital rocket (Falcon 9 in 2015); the first reuse of an orbital rocket (Falcon 9 in 2017); and the first privately funded space agency to launch an object into solar orbit, with the Falcon Heavy, in February 2018.

Elon’s ultimate goal for the company is to establish a colony on Mars. He aims to carry the first cargo missions there by 2022, and the first manned missions by 2024. By reusing old rockets and reducing the cost of spaceflight considerably, SpaceX has captured the imagination of people all over the world, despite major setbacks such as a launchpad explosion in 2016. Near-future plans for the company include the launch of the BFR (a euphemism for Big F*****g Rocket), a manned mission to the moon, and plans to repurpose the Falcon launch system into a global “commuter” rocket-powered transportation systems.

The next generation

Along with these four visionaries, a host of other government agencies and smaller private projects are gunning for the stars once again. More than six decades after we first decided to explore the cosmos, resources and ambition are coming together at an unprecedented scale to return us to the final frontier. Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines. A new Space Race has begun.

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