Outer Limits: With One Flying First and Another Soaring Higher, Who Actually Won the Billionaire Space Race? - The Scene

These men were not afraid to dip into their deep, deep pockets to get ahead.

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Who says business has to be limited to earth? Some of the world’s richest people have been setting their sights on outer space for more than a decade and have spent a considerable amount of their fortunes to make it happen. 

That decades-long rivalry and pursuit finally had some success this month, as two billionaires made separate yet equally historic space flights. Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson rocketed into space on his own aircraft from their Spaceport America launch site. 

Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos and three crewmates, meanwhile, lifted off from the space company’s West Texas launch site

The difference is the altitude reached and standards met by both space flights. 

Blue Origin’s spacecraft traveled three times the speed of sound and reached an altitude of about 45 miles before it flew on its own to more than 62 miles above the earth. Bezos and his crewmates enjoyed three minutes of weightlessness during the flight.

This altitude is the internationally-recognized boundary between aerodynamically discernible atmosphere and space, a distinction recognized by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, a Switzerland-based organization that sanctions aerospace records. 

The Virgin Galactic space plane flew at a lower altitude, but it was still above the 50-mile altitude recognized as the boundary of space by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Federal Aviation Administration. The model flew at 45,000 feet above the ground, before a rocket engine carried the plane further into space. Branson and his crew also enjoyed weightlessness, as seen in a livestream of the trip. 

Though Blue Origin has earlier made a point to highlight that Branson’s trip wouldn’t count as a space flight as it will only ascend to 80 kilometers, way below the barrier for space—the Karman line—that most countries recognize at 100 kilometers above sea level, both flights are considered successful.

Here’s a look at all the entrepreneur contenders of the space race, just how much they are spending, and what they are doing to achieve more breakthroughs in launching commercial space flights.

Jeff Bezos

Known as the man who turned a company from nothing to a trillion-dollar business, Bezos recently announced that he is set to step down as Amazon’s CEO. He is expected to spend more time working at Blue Origin, which is his own aerospace manufacturer and sub-orbital spaceflight services company.

“Earth, in all its beauty, is just our starting place,” the company’s website description states. “Blue Origin is opening the promise of space to all.”

With the aim of “establishing a true industrial base in space,” Bezos has completed 14 missions so far since its establishment in 2000, which included 15 unmanned test flights. The one that just took place was his most exciting yet—Blue Origin’s first crewed flight via the reusable suborbital New Shepard rocket. The spare seat on the July 20 flight, which includes Bezos and his brother, has been given to famed female astronaut, Wally Funk.

This will most likely be what the company’s commercial flight to space will look like ahead of already scheduled trips to the International Space Station, the seats for which costs $55 million.

It’s unknown exactly how much Bezos has spent on space technology via Blue Origin, but a CNBC report says he ‘spends billions’ out of his $201.8 billion Amazon fortune.

Elon Musk

Also a strong contender in the space race among billionaires is Musk, the man behind Tesla and Space X.

“[The company] designs, manufactures and launches the world’s most advanced rockets and spacecraft,” the company’s description reads.

As opposed to Blue Origin, who has largely been under the radar until 2015, when it started testing New Shepard, Musk’s hobby-turned-business has been on a roll since it was founded.

Nineteen years into its existence, Space X has achieved many firsts. It was the first privately funded liquid propellant rocket into orbit called Falcon One; the first private mission to the ISS; the first vertical landing for an orbital rocket; and the first company to send astronauts into orbit.    

The $74-billion company—about 48 percent of which, equivalent to $32 billion, is owned by Musk—has also focused its efforts and investments into reusable rockets that are not only sustainable, but also drives down the cost of space access.

Falcon 9, for instance, is its reusable, two-stage rocket designed and manufactured for reliable and safe transport of people and payloads into Earth orbit and beyond.

Musk sets his sights on a specific planet, too, with multiple attempts to launch a ship to what is believed as the next best shelter for humans: Mars. Starship was put to the test in early May, which ended in a fiery crash landing. It is its ninth test flight and though it ended unfavorably, Musk and SpaceX are hard at work to keep its bold promise to be able to transport humans to Mars as soon as 2024.

Richard Branson

British billionaire Branson of Virgin Galactic hasn’t been slacking off either. Since its establishment in 2004, the space company, which focuses on space tourism, low-cost orbital launchers, and intercontinental suborbital transit, has been successful in three manned test flights.

This 2021, it is upping its ante against rivals.

Branson and his company flew to space, beating Bezos by nine days. The test flight using a rocket-powered plane, a preview of what their “private astronaut experience” will look like, carried Branson and five others on board. 

Branson denied that his move is a direct response to rival Bezos’ July 20 trip, telling CNN that it “really doesn’t matter” who gets to space first. He even congratulated the latter for his feat.

His involvement in the trip still came as a surprise, though, as he was expected to join the next test launch, instead of this one.

Nevertheless, the business magnate, whose net worth is at $5.6 billion, says he is ‘honored’ to be able to help ‘ensure his business delivers a unique customer experience.’

It’s also unknown how much Branson has spent for Virgin Galactic, but he and his Virgin Group own 24 percent of its stake.

But, of course, whoever gets their physically first isn’t necessarily the one who wins. Beyond childhood dreams, what’s on the mind of these powerful men might be who can first make space travel more accessible to more people, and in turn, can rebound from all the investments that have been made. They’re not billionaires for no reason.

Banner Photo from @SpaceX on Instagram

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