Why fiercest billionaire space race is Jeff Bezos vs Elon Musk

If Jeff Bezos has been feeling upstaged by rival space entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson, he certainly was not showing it.

The Amazon founder was in ebullient mood after a jaunt to the edge of space, making the trip aboard the first flight of his private space company, Blue Origin, to carry passengers.

His 10-minute mission on the New Shephard was followed by a self-congratulatory ceremony where he and three others had sapphire astronaut “wings” pinned to their flying suits — after which a grinning Bezos handed US$100 million ($143.7m) cheques to two celebrities to give out to charities of their choice, in an apparent response to criticism over what many have called an extravagant joyride.

The coming-out party for Blue Origin underlined just how important the Amazon founder believes it is to make up for lost time.

Bezos was beaten to space by Branson, who last week nudged above the line the US considers the boundary of space aboard a Virgin Galactic spaceplane, the VSS Unity. For the slickly marketed Virgin Galactic it brought an important publicity edge and elicited a sour response from Bezos’ space company, which pointed out the rest of the world sets a higher standard.

Musk’s SpaceX has leapt much further ahead, flying astronauts to the International Space Station last year and shooting for a trip around the moon in 2023.

“What Elon is doing is on the order of 50 times more difficult” than Blue Origin’s trip this week, said Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize, which helped to kickstart the commercial space industry more than two decades ago.

After 21 years of effort, though, Tuesday’s flight was finally a moment for Bezos to savour. It came six years after Blue Origin appeared to grab a lead over SpaceX in at least one department, pulling off the successful landing and reuse of a rocket. Since then, its next milestone has been a long time coming. “He’s been slow, everyone in the industry is aware of that,” said Greg Autry, a former White House liaison to Nasa.

Blue Origin’s protracted path reflects a “much more planned and careful approach” than the seat-of-the-pants style of SpaceX, Autry said — something that has yielded a highly reliable space programme, though at the cost of losing years to its chief rival. He added that its slower pace also appears to reflect the background of the company’s leadership in the traditional aerospace industry, in contrast to the more eclectic group assembled at SpaceX by the famously hard-driving Musk.

Despite the delays, this week’s flight has finally opened a way forward for Blue Origin. It became the first purely commercial space company to carry a paying passenger, with two more flights planned for this year. Selling seats in its six-person capsule should generate extra cash for the company, which has so far depended entirely on Bezos’ personal fortune.

The opening up of suborbital space tourism — offering a brief glimpse of the curve of the earth from space, along with a precious few minutes in zero gravity — sets up a competition between sharply divergent styles. Virgin Galactic, run by a former Disney executive, Michael Colglazier, has spent years weaving a careful narrative around its brief sorties, casting its future “astronauts” as participants in a space adventure.

Sounding every bit the experienced theme parks boss, Colglazier laid out his plan for the company in an interview with the Financial Times last week. “At the end of the day you’re going to come back with a memory, and that memory has to be so powerful that you’re going to share it daily for the rest of your life,” he said. Of Galactic’s airborne rocket launches, he added: “It’s elegant. It’s beautiful. It’s a bit like a ballet up in space above the earth.”

Blue Origin, by contrast, has opted for a more gritty space exploration aesthetic. Bezos gave up the leather jackets and aviator shades he has worn on his previous Blue Origin appearances, donning a battered cowboy hat as he crossed the iron gantry to clamber into his space capsule.

In contrast to the marketing message carefully honed by Branson’s company, Bezos was almost dismissive of the kind of trips his company is now trying to sell to rich would-be astronauts.

“The whole point of doing this is to get practice,” he said of Blue Origin’s trips to the edge of space with paying passengers aboard. “The fact of the matter is that the architecture and the technology we have chosen is complete overkill for suborbital tourism mission.”

His eyes, instead, are on a bigger prize: launching a rocket into orbit, matching a feat that SpaceX first achieved more than 11 years ago.

Blue Origin has at least built a sound technological foundation for its larger ambitions beyond suborbital flight, said Autry. These include using liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to power its rockets, difficult-to-handle fuels that will be well suited to more ambitious launches.

Much now depends on two imponderables, according to many space experts: how much of his time and how much of his money Bezos is prepared to pour into his space company.

Few others would have a chance of catching up with SpaceX, but Bezos’s personal fortune makes Blue Origin a strong contender, said Diamandis. “Bezos doesn’t need to beat Elon — he needs to beat Lockheed Martin and Boeing,” he said. “Having the number one and number three wealthiest people on the planet using their money to open space is extraordinary.”

Bezos has stayed mum about how much he has ploughed into the venture, apart from a single comment three years ago that he was spending US$1 billion a year. SpaceX is estimated to have raised nearly US$7b over its life, and generates substantial cash from its busy schedule of orbital launches.

The Amazon founder also sent conflicting messages this week about just how big a role space exploration will play in his future. Two weeks after leaving Amazon, he said that Blue Origin would be one of the two things that will now occupy his time — before quickly adding that he expected to find other new ventures to keep him busy as well.

“I’m not very good at doing one thing,” he said. With Blue Origin facing a steep challenge as it tries catch up with SpaceX, those words may come back to haunt him.

Written by: Richard Waters

© Financial Times

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