There is a new space race underway, but it is going to be very different from the one between the Soviet Union and the US in the 20th century. Personal ambition to get there first has replaced national ambition, and it will also have a significant testosterone component. One of the first stages of that competition is taking place this summer of 2021, with two billionaires vying to have their name mentioned the most in history books and space documentaries.
Who owns Mars?
The protagonist of this chapter was to be Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, who scheduled the maiden space voyage of his company Blue Origin for this Tuesday, July 20 at 8 am, 13.00 hours in Spain. Once amassed the world’s largest fortune (177,000 million dollars, according to Forbes), Bezos has taken a step aside at Amazon to focus on his space project. Among the select group of billionaires who explore the business possibilities of orbital rides, he was the first who dared to take the step and announce that he was going to get on one of his test ships.
Then Richard Branson appeared on the scene. This eccentric billionaire (his holdings are estimated to total $5.9 billion) had been trying for more than 15 years with his company Virgin Galactic, so he counterprogrammed Bezos to leave nine days earlier. And he did: on July 11, he boarded one of his airships and ascended to 80 kilometers of altitude accompanied by some of his collaborators.
Branson wanted the spotlight and he got it. At 71, he is used to them: with his record label Virgin Records he has released albums by the Rolling Stones, Britney Spears or the Spice Girls and is a regular in the media and television. But his feat has some drawbacks, since the International Space Federation considers that the border of the atmosphere is at the Kármán Line, 100 kilometres above sea level, 20 kilometres higher than the height reached by his Unity 22 spacecraft.
Blue Origin didn’t hesitate to put its finger on the problem, denying Branson’s self-declaration as the first billionaire to self-fund his journey into space. “Only 4% of the world recognizes the lower limit of 80 km or 50 miles as the beginning of space,” Bezos’ company affronted as Branson and his fellow travelers floated in the Unity 22. Blue Origin boasts that its ship does reach the necessary elevation.
The experts are with Bezos. “Getting up to 50 miles high – no, that’s not space travel. That’s a plane that flies high,” says Victor Rodrigo, founder of the company Crisa (now part of Airbus), one of the pioneers of the Spanish space industry. “If you don’t pass the Kármán limit, you haven’t made a space flight. Among other things, because you can still control the plane with traditional instruments. After the Kármán limit, you need attitude control systems, the small rockets that guide the vehicle in space,” he explains.
The difference can be seen in both spacecraft. While Virgin Galactic’s is very similar to two airplanes joined by the wing that carry a third device that they release when they reach a certain altitude, Blue Origin’s is a rocket that takes off and lands vertically.
The dispute between the two billionaires, with a debate about what is space travel and what is not, has to do with the positioning of their two companies in the emerging space tourism business. In fact, if you remove the “self-funded” surname, neither Bezos nor Branson are the first billionaires to travel into space. That title went to Dennis Tito in 2001, when he paid some 23 million euros to spend a week on the International Space Station, which he reached in a Russian Soyuz probe. The ISS orbits 400 km from the Earth’s crust.
Virgin Galactic has announced that a seat on its flights will cost around a quarter of a million dollars. Blue Origin, for its part, has focused on staging that outer space is now for everyone with the crew members who have embarked with Bezos. The founder of Amazon was accompanied by the oldest astronaut (Wally Funk, 82) and the youngest (Oliver Daemen, 18), as well as his brother Mark. The trip lasted about 15 minutes.
“The barriers to entry, especially the launcher aspect, are coming down. Space is more accessible and that gives a lot of opportunities. Tourism is just one of them,” says Isabel Vera, chair of the Space Committee of the Spanish Engineering Institute.
The new space race goes beyond tourism
Although Virgin Galactic has been investigating the idea of suborbital flights for tourists for the longest time and Branson overtook Bezos on the right, the two companies that have their sights set much further ahead of that milestone are Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The latter has already pledged to make the first private expedition to the moon, scheduled for 2023.
SpaceX has won a major NASA contract to design a new lunar lander for the U.S. space agency in exchange for $3 billion. It will be used in NASA’s new program to take astronauts to the satellite in 2024, called Artemis. In that race was also Blue Origin, along with a third called Dynetics (one of the traditional contractors of the US aerospace sector). The contract was eventually won by SpaceX, but Blue Origin took the award to court because the initial plan was to hire two companies to work on their respective projects and then choose the best one. Bezos’ company claims that position as the second developer.
“Can’t lift it (to orbit) lol”, Musk wrote upon learning of the lawsuit in a tweet that helps define the derroterThe new space race is taking place over the next few years.
Beyond the testosterone and barroom double entendres, the conflict shows how important private capital will be in the new wave of technology aimed at taking humans beyond Earth. “All that investment is going to bring new products and more opportunities. Countries are doing it, but accompanied by a more industrial support, also so that the sector that is being generated can be exported to new countries. A space industry is being created that will feed back,” Vera explains.
The other fact is the leadership of the USA in this new space race. “Europe has lagged far behind. We have only made one launch so far this year. The US has already made 28 and China has made 27. Even India has already done more than us,” laments Víctor Rodrigo, who advises the European Commission on how to get private investment back into the European aerospace sector. “We need to develop our own launcher,” he says.
The Spanish Space Agency
The series of announcements and space flights by American millionaires has coincided with a debate in the Spanish aerospace sector about the Spanish Space Agency, a proposal by Pedro Duque that has been left up in the air after his departure from the Government. The idea, moreover, did not get the best of receptions.
“We are practically the only Europeans who do not have it”, reveals Vera, president of the Space Committee. “When they made the announcement there were many people who did not see it well, but I think it’s a bit of ignorance. It is something that the sector has always asked for, right now there is no administration that acts as a single interlocutor of space in Spain, none that coordinates and unifies all policies and is responsible for designing the long-term strategy, “he regrets.
We are one of the few European countries that do not have a Space Agency.
Isabel Vera – president of the Space Committee of the Institute of Engineering
“We have to take into account that this is a very important industry and that it is already essential for daily life because it offers many basic services such as GPS, earth observation, climatology, telecommunications, which has been fundamental during the pandemic…”, recalls Vera.
It will be important for the public authorities to take positions on the new space race, adds the expert, because of the debates it will open up. Space debris, the environmental impact of this industry, the use of space (Elon Musk’s new constellation of satellites has upset many) or the exploitation of resources outside the Earth are questions that the international community may have to face sooner rather than later.