Bezos, Branson, Musk: What You Need To Know About The New Space Race | News from science and technology
The space race of the last century was a competition between the world’s great powers and a test of their ideologies. It would prove to be a synecdoche of the entire Cold War between the capitalist United States and the socialist Soviet Union.
The race to the future kicked off in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy pledged to “achieve the goal of landing a man on the moon and getting him safely back to earth before this decade,” and it ended with a US victory on July 24, 1969, when the crew of the Apollo 11 mission landed safely in the Pacific Ocean.
There are no such missions in today’s race. The values of the future are beyond question, just the egos of three billionaires. Two of these men will be using their private space companies to launch off this planet in the next few weeks. So here’s how they compare and what you need to know:
Sir Richard Branson
- Age: 70
- Estimated net worth: $ 5.8 billion (£ 4.2 billion)
- Company: Virgin Galactic
- Start date: July 11th
“My mother taught me never to give up and reach for the stars,” said Sir Richard Branson, announcing that he would be one of the first people his space company started on a mission.
Unfortunately, Virgin Galactic’s mission will not only reach the stars, but also the two and a half hour mission, at least by the internationally agreed definition.
VSS Unity is a spacecraft (maybe just an airplane?) That takes off in the air from the belly of a carrier aircraft at an altitude of about 15 km and then flies up to an altitude of about 80 km, making passengers feel almost weightless for about six minutes and you will see the curvature of the earth.
The problem for Sir Richard is that the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) defines the boundary between the earth’s atmosphere and space as 100 km above mean sea level, the so-called Karman Line, 20 km higher than he will travel.
Defining the edge of space is a bit of a challenge. The earth’s atmosphere does not end suddenly, but becomes thinner and thinner at greater heights. Simply put, physicist Theodore von Karman’s solution was to define the edge of space as the highest point at which an airplane could fly without reaching orbital speed.
While Karman himself and the FAI consider this altitude to be 100 km, Sir Richard has the US Air Force and NASA on his side. Both set the limit of space at 80 km above mean sea level, in part because setting 100 km would complicate problems with surveillance aircraft and reconnaissance satellites for the US – although the Department of Defense agrees with the FAI definition.
It’s not clear if that definition is covered by the fine print on Virgin Galactic’s customer tickets, but ultimately the company is aiming to operate multiple space tourism flights per year and already has more than 600 customers for the $ 250,000 (£ 189,000) of seats – including – Justin Bieber and Leonardo DiCaprio.
- Age: 67
- Estimated net worth: $ 198 billion (£ 144 billion)
- Company: Blue Origin
- Start date: July 20th
“I have been dreaming of going into space since I was five years old. I will take this trip with my brother on July 20,” said Jeff Bezos, announcing his place on a journey to the edge of space.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket is capable of actually making it there with a maximum altitude of over 100 km, but how high it will bring its four passengers is not yet confirmed.
Those passengers will be Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, a mysterious customer who paid $ 28 million (£ 20 million) to sit in an auction, and the 82-year-old Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk, a woman who trained as an astronaut in the 1960s but had no chance of going into space because of her gender.
While the Virgin Galactic mission is about to be launched, Wally Funk’s invitation has succeeded in getting Branson to bring a famous victim of gender injustice into space – she had previously spent money on the flight on Virgin Galactic.
It takes three minutes for passengers to reach the required altitude and then three minutes to enjoy their sudden near-weightlessness. They are allowed to unbuckle their seat belts and float around, as well as examine the curvature of the earth through one of the pod’s windows. A little more than 10 minutes after take-off, the spacecraft will land back on Earth.
The flight on July 20 is fittingly on the anniversary of the moon landing in 1969, but unlike the Apollo missions, no one will control the modules. Instead, Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft is fully autonomous and will follow a programmed mission timeline before parachuting back to Earth.
The company has announced that it will sell seats for more tourist flights in the future, but it is not clear how that will be done and tickets for New Shepard have yet to go on general sale.
- Age: 50
- Estimated net worth: $ 167 billion (£ 121 billion)
- Company: SpaceX
- Start date: Unknown
“I want to die on Mars – just not on impact,” Elon Musk once joked, although he did not announce his immediate intention to travel to space.
Unlike Bezos and Branson, Musk’s private space company SpaceX has a long and successful history of launching payloads well past the 100 km mark.
SpaceX has announced that it will launch a purely civilian mission into orbit by the end of the year, with passengers orbiting the planet for up to four days before returning to Earth.
All four crew seats on the mission were paid for by Jared Isaacman, founder of Shift4 Payments, who refused to disclose the cost.
Isaacman is donating two of the seats to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, one to a staff member there and another to be raffled off to a member of the public. He hopes to raise $ 200 million (£ 145 million) for the hospital, along with a $ 100 million (£ 72 million) donation of his own.
Elon Musk himself made no mention of flying on this mission, although he has long since formulated a plan for a trip to Mars, plans that appear as dangerous delusion by Britain’s chief astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees.
In 2016, Musk outlined his vision of Building a colony on Mars “in our lifes” – with the first rocket that will transport people to the red planet by 2025.
For many years, the company used an image of the terraformed (Earth-like) surface of Mars in its promotional materials. However a NASA sponsored study published in 2018 dismissed these plans as impossible with today’s technology.
Musk recently tweeted that he believes it is “possible to create a self-sustaining city on Mars by 2050 if we start in five years,” but SpaceX has not yet planned any missions to the planet.