The Amazonification of Space Begins in Earnest
The anniversary of the Apollo moon landing marked a small step for space travel but a giant leap for space billionaires.
Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson vividly demonstrated this month that soaring to the far reaches of the sky seems safe and, most importantly, a lark. The planet is in so much trouble it’s a relief to escape even for 10 minutes, which was about the length of the suborbital rides offered by the entrepreneurs through their respective companies, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.
But beyond the glare, there was a deeper message: The Amazonification of space has truly begun. What was once largely the domain of big government is now increasingly the domain of big tech. The people who sold you the Internet are now going to sell you the moon and the stars.
Mr. Bezos, the founder of Amazon and still its largest shareholder, made it clear at the press conference after Tuesday’s theft that Blue Origin was open for business. Although tickets were generally not available, flight sales were already approaching $ 100 million. Mr Bezos did not specify the price for each, but added: “The demand is very, very high.”
That demand was there even before media around the world flocked to Van Horn, Texas for extensive and flattering coverage of Mr. Bezos doing something Mr. Branson had done in New Mexico the week before. They attended a carefully orchestrated event, with the world’s oldest and world’s youngest astronaut, crowned with a $ 200 million philanthropic giveaway.
Even Elon Musk, chief executive of rival SpaceX and sometimes skeptical of Mr. Bezos’ space dreams, felt compelled to offer congratulations. Mr. Branson too, who got bragging rights by taking his flight first. Mr. Musk went to see Mr. Branson leave.
All this space activity is the start of something new but also a replay of the 1990s. At the start of this decade, the Internet was owned by the government devoted to research and communication for the few. In the end, thanks to Mr. Bezos more than anyone, it was a place where anyone could buy things. Over the next 20 years, the technology grew and became Big Tech, sparking bipartisan fears that Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple are now too powerful.
Outer space could now be embarked on a similar journey from the border to big business.
For decades, NASA hasn’t secured enough funding to do something as epic as the Apollo program. The Trump administration has declared a return to the moon by 2024. The Biden administration has approved the target but not the date. If that happens, it will be with the help of companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. Unlike the Apollo project in the 1960s, the next trip to the moon will be contracted out.
Small space companies are even more open to entrepreneurs.
“If you look at where space is today, especially in lower Earth orbit activities, it really looks like the early days of the Internet,” said West Griffin, chief financial officer of Axiom, a start-up to build the first commercial space station.
The commercialization of space began during the dot-com boom of the 1990s, but took much longer to materialize. This month’s flights date back to 1996, when the nonprofit X Prize announced a competition: $ 10 million for the first non-governmental organization to build a reusable spacecraft that could take someone to a altitude of 100 kilometers, or 62.5 miles, then do it again in less than two weeks.
The winning design in 2004 turned out to be SpaceShipOne as part of an effort led by Burt Rutan, an aerospace engineer who previously designed the Voyager aircraft that circled the world without stopping or refueling. . It was funded by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft who died in 2018.
The X Prize also piqued Mr. Branson’s interest. It registered the “Virgin Galactic Airways” trademark in 1999 and authorized SpaceShipOne technology. Mr Branson hoped a larger version could start commercial flights within three years. It took 17 years instead.
A growing ecosystem of start-ups is trying to commercialize space by building everything from cheaper launch technology and smaller satellites to infrastructure that is the “pickaxes and shovels” of the Gold Rush. space, like Meagan Crawford, managing partner of venture capital firm SpaceFund, he says.
“People are looking around, ‘There’s this tough space industry. Where does it come from? ‘ Ms. Crawford said. “Well, it was built methodically and purposefully, and it took a lot of work over the past 30 years to get us here. “
Investors invested $ 7 billion in financing space start-ups in 2020, double the amount of just two years, according to space analysis firm Bryce Tech.
“What we’re all trying to do now is do what Jeff, Richard, and Elon did 20 years ago, which is to build big businesses, except we’re building businesses in there. from the very beginning and built their businesses on earth, “ said Chris Kemp, CEO of Astra, a start-up focused on delivering smaller, cheaper and more frequent launches.
The first space race, which spanned the 1960s and then ran out of steam in the 1970s, pitted a bold and courageous US government against a malevolent and charmless Soviet Union. The Americans won this competition, although critics argued that it was all a mistake at a time when so many national problems required attention and money.
This time? Pretty much the same, even if now it’s personal. A petition calling for Mr. Bezos not to be allowed to return to earth has collected 180,000 virtual signatures. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat from Massachusetts, tweeted: “It’s time for Jeff Bezos to do business here on Earth and pay his fair share of taxes.”
Mr. Musk tweeted a defense of space projects which was written in a laconic style reminiscent of the poet EE Cummings:
those who attack space
may not realize it
space represents hope
for so many people
The tweet attracted over a quarter of a million likes although answers like this: “Nobody attacks space. We are attacking billionaires who have amassed vast fortunes on the backs of an exploited workforce.
In an interview with CNN on Monday from the Texas launch site, Bezos said his critics were “largely right.”
“We have to do both,” he said. “We have a lot of problems here and now on Earth, and we have to work on it. And we must always look to the future.
But it’s clear which prospect holds his attention. As a major in his high school class in 1982, Mr. Bezos spoke about the importance of creating life in huge floating space colonies for millions of people. “The idea is to preserve the earth,” the Miami Herald said at the time, adding that its ultimate goal was to see the planet “turn into a huge national park.”
Mr. Bezos said much the same thing this week. It was a utopian dream with many complicated moving parts – just like, on a smaller scale, the notion of a retailer selling everything to everyone and making deliveries within hours. And to almost everyone’s surprise, he did this job.
Mr Branson has launched another branch of space, Virgin Orbit, which launches small payloads into orbit. He didn’t hint at grandiose visions like Mr. Musk and Mr. Bezos to spread civilization in the solar system.
Mr. Musk’s Martian dreams began with a pipe dream: he wanted to send a plant to Mars and see if it could grow there. But the costs of launching even a small experiment were prohibitive. Even the options in Russia were out of reach. Mr. Musk therefore founded SpaceX in 2002.
Today he wants to send people, not plants, to Mars. SpaceX is currently developing Starship, large enough to make the trip, and Starlink, a satellite Internet constellation, which aims to generate the profits necessary to fund the plans for Mars.
By pursuing these goals, the company has become a giant in the space sector. NASA relies on SpaceX rockets and capsules to send astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station, and private, government and military satellite operators fly the reusable Falcon 9 booster rocket into orbit.
NASA recently awarded a contract to SpaceX to use its prototype spacecraft for the lunar program. The contract was challenged by Blue Origin and another company, Dynetics. For all the camaraderie displayed this week, billionaires are playing to win.
Kenneth chang contributed reports.
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