The space companies founded by the three billionaires all have slightly different goals and varying visions of how to achieve them. But never has the Branson-Musk-Bezos dynamic appeared more competitive than when Branson announced earlier this month that he would fire himself into outer space on a suborbital joy ride just days before Bezos will clamber into his own rocket.
But which billionaire is truly winning this so-called space race? It all depends on how you look at it.
Meanwhile, neither Branson’s nor Bezos’ companies have managed to take astronauts to orbit. Their companies have, relatively speaking, just scratched the edge of space.
“Our mascot is the tortoise because we believe slow is smooth and smooth is fast,” Bezos has said, which could be seen as an attempt to position Blue Origin as the anti-SpaceX, which is known to embrace speed and trial-and-error over slow, meticulous development processes.
New Shepard — Blue Origin’s fully autonomous, reusable, suborbital rocket — was intended to be an early step toward creating lunar lander technology, helping to teach the company how to safely land a small spacecraft on the moon. But the company is also parlaying its New Shepard vehicle into a suborbital space tourism business in which it can sell tickets to wealthy thrill seekers — and that is at the core of the latest news cycle. Bezos and three others will be the first passengers ever to take the high-speed, 11-minute joyride aboard a New Shepard capsule.
Lately, however, Branson and Bezos’ rivalry has taken center stage.
Branson set off a wave of speculation that Virgin Galactic had rearranged its test flight plans in order to get Branson to space before Bezos’ flight on July 20.
Not to mention, Branson has also sent a rocket to orbit. Again, that requires far more speed and rocket power than suborbital trips.
Branson’s Virgin Orbit, which spun off from Virgin Galactic in 2017, sent its first batch of satellites to orbit in January. Though Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne, which takes off from beneath the wing from a Boeing 747 jet, is not nearly as powerful as Musk’s Falcon 9s or Bezos’ planned New Glenn rockets, it is considered an industry leader in a niche race to develop rockets designed specifically for hauling small satellites, or smallsats, to space as they’ve boomed in popularity.
Virgin Galactic also has some bold long-term visions, including creating a suborbital, supersonic jet that can shuttle people between cities at breakneck speeds.
To sum it up: All three billionaires have similar but distinct extraterrestrial ambitions, and the goal is for the private sector to get satellites, people or cargo into space cheaper and quicker than has been possible in decades past. But the race — as much as it is one — can also be just as much about the eccentric personalities and egoism of some of the world’s richest men.