In the not so distant past, space races were an elite “sport” that only superpower governments could afford to compete in; how times have changed. Today, we see the boundaries of space travel pushed to their limits not by billion dollar governments, but by billion dollar men.
You may even have heard of them! Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson are in the heat of an incredibly expensive billionaire space race for the dominance of space. More than an expensive hobby, the first to successfully corner the market on private space exploration will no doubt reap the benefits for generations to come.
Elon Musk: SpaceX
While all three are pursuing the commercialization of human space flight, each company has different long-term goals for their continuing mission. Elon Musk’s SpaceX was founded in 2002 but has already launched, orbited, and recovered a spacecraft. Unlike its competitors, SpaceX has the enviable goal of making the colonization of Mars affordable.
For this reason, it is focused on launching astronauts and resupplying crafts to facilitate the complex operations of eventual colonization. Already, SpaceX has proven the Dragon spacecraft’s prowess in transporting astronauts to the International Space Station as well as carrying and returning significant amounts of cargo. NASA’s SpaceX Crew-3 mission has a target launch date of October 31st for taking four NASA astronauts to the ISS after its successful Crew-1 mission in 2020.
Jeff Bezos: Blue Origin
Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin has managed to accomplish a manned flight only 21 years since its inception. Launching with an all-civilian crew on July 20th, the Blue Origin’s maiden subortal voyage came just a week after Virgin Galactic’s. But it’s crew broke a few records, carrying both the oldest and youngest passengers in history. At the age of 82, Mary Wallace Funk – aka Wally – was an inspiring addition to the voyage.
In the 1960’s Wally Funk was a member of the privately-funded Mercury 13 program which put 13 American women under the same physiological screening tests as NASA’s Project Mercury astronauts. Intending only to evaluate the aptitude of women to become astronauts, the program never resulted in space travel for its members. However, some of the women later lobbied Congress for the inclusion of women in NASA’s space programs. Almost 60 years later, Wally Funk’s inclusion on the Blue Origin mission made her the program’s only member to visit space.
Sir Richard Branson: VSS Unity
Sir Richard Branson’s VSS Unity spacecraft also entered the billionaire space race and set the pace with a manned flight on July 11th. As the first publicly-traded space tourism company, Virgin Galactic’s crewed suborbital spaceflight was a major accomplishment 17 years in the making. Unique among the three, Virgin Galactic’s mission expressly seeks to capture the space tourism market. Sir Branson’s Virgin Group has a hand in a variety of industries, but space tourism is a new venture for the eccentric billionaire. The mission, dubbed Unity 22, included the company’s founder as well as other personnel such as Sirisha Bandla, VP of Government Affairs, and Colin Bennett, Lead Operations Engineer.
The Bright Future Ahead!
But before we start handing out the illustrious title of “astronaut” to all these crew members, the US Federal Aviation Agency quickly redefined the term to now require contributions to public safety or human spaceflight safety. Astronauts or not, these missions highlight how far mankind has come in space exploration. Hinting at an exciting world where space travel is more accessible, these companies will hopefully help create a future reminiscent of the Star Trek Enterprise’s timeless, opening words:
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before!