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Branson vs Bezos: A 2021 Space Odyssey

Jul 12, 2021 1:53 PM 6 min read

July 11th 2021 may not have been a particularly celebratory day for the people of England (the wounds from Wembley are still afresh) except for one Englishman - Sir Richard Branson, who became the first person to ride into space on a rocket he helped fund

Sir Branson, a 70-year-old debonair entrepreneur known for his fearless adventurism, took off into space with five other crew-mates aboard the rocket plane VSS Unity that was developed by his privately-owned space corporation Virgin Galactic.

The mission that was being developed for the last 17 years helped Branson achieve his space travel goals precisely nine days before Jeff Bezos will. Bezos had earlier announced his own space travel scheduled on July 20th - coinciding with the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. 

Even though the English billionaire denies "wishing to outdo Bezos", his plans to advance his own space journey perhaps speak otherwise. But as billionaires effectively keep bending their space-time tables to fulfil their boyhood aspirations, it indicates a mounting progress towards privatised space voyages in the future. 

Although the effective flying time of Unity may have been 15 minutes, it was enough to turn the heads of global audiences towards the achievable realities of space travel which now seems closer than ever before. 

The Space Star Galactica

Virgin Galactic proclaimed itself as the "world's first commercial spaceline" ahead of Unity's launch. However, the word "commercial" becomes real only when at least one of the passengers aboard is a paying customer, which wasn't the case in Branson's flight.

Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, on the other hand, comes closer to this definition because they auctioned tickets on his upcoming flight for $28m. Still, ticket sales to the general public haven't begun yet so Blue Origin's commercial operations are also uncertain as of now. 

But, commercial reality is on the horizon.There are more than 600 applicants waiting in line to pay for a flight to space on Virgin Galactic's passenger rockets. Ticket prices are $250,000 per head. Blue Origin has its own beeline as well but the ticket costs haven't been disclosed yet.

So what did Sir Branson achieve through this flight, besides zapping past the edge of space? The theory is that he "opened the door to space tourism". Virgin Galactic has been developing the space missions for the past seventeen years that were dotted with many test launches and two fatal accidents in 2007 and 2014. This marks a definitive way-post (if not a milepost) in the evolution of future space travel that billionaires like Branson, Bezos and Elon Musk have insisted on "democratising" very soon. 


History of Private Space Travel

How does one define a private spaceflight exactly? If the flight, its development and operations are carried out or paid for by a non-government agency. 

After progressing through the "Space Age" when space journey was monopolised by the government agencies of USA and USSR, the late 20th century saw the rise of defence contractors who helped develop auxiliary space functions (launch systems, satellite technology etc.) and the gradual entry of entrepreneurs who designed and deployed space systems at par with government systems.

OTRAG was the world's first fully private space company. Founded in 1975 in Stuttgart, Germany, the company sent 14 rockets to orbit; they weren't largely successful due to heavy government lobbying and curbs placed on private space operations back then.

The table below shows the important events the world's private space travel history. This includes both privately funded as well as private individual space journeys. Although no non-government space entity was allowed to operate in the US before 2004, private individuals did journey into space as "space tourists" aboard the government missions.


Then came SpaceX and its monumental feat of sending the first private rocket into space (the Dragon) that docked onto the International Space Station (ISS) in 2012. This was a bridge that connected both private space exploration as well as tourism. 

Companies like SpaceX and Boeing have been building new (and reusable) spacecrafts to taxi astronauts back-and-forth from the ISS for a while now as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program. Meanwhile, SpaceX is also planning for Inspiration4, its first launch with an entirely non-astronaut crew in September this year. 

However, the truly privatised and commercial space travel, that looks somewhat like commercial air travel, is yet to come true.  


A Billionaire Space Race

The flights of Branson and Bezos are perhaps a window into a future that we can't see right now. Even by undertaking highly publicised and record-setting space travels, it is impractical to start or sustain space tourism operations in the long run until they are accessible to everyone, not just the well-heeled rich customers who can afford six-figure dollar denominated ticket prices. 

To be fair, there is no dearth of money pouring into space. As countries opened up the space industry to private sector, the amount of invested capital kept rising too ($8.9bn invested in 2021 alone). But retail participation is essential for an industry to thrive, especially in one like space tourism which have high capex costs. 

One thing that has proven beneficial for the growth of the industry is rising competition. Along with a substantial rise in private space tech corporations in Russia, EU, China, India etc., the billionaire space race has picked up immense steam over the last decade. 

Critics may dismiss the Branson-Bezos space rivalry as a petulant and ego-flexing exercise but they cannot dismiss the worldwide traction gained out of this supposed "feud" and the capital interest that could potentially follow from it.  

But there are certain downsides to oveplaying this competition too. Space travel involves harsh realities - realities that some say are downplayed when billionaire passengers live stream their weightless acrobatics from space.

The regulatory environment is still shaky with only a handful of countries engaged in the space-faring race and equipped with laws to regulate it. So the exposure of space travel also gets extremely narrowed, far from being democratised. 

The Edge of a Private Space Age

Let's consider supersonic air travel for a moment. This was a business that was commercialised almost 50 years ago with the maiden flight of Concorde. It fizzled out of existence in the early 2000s.

Reason: Major crashes, excessive ticket prices, increasing fuel and maintenance costs. 

Basically, it failed due to the unworkability of the business model. A business that promised to cut down air travel times immensely and is in the process of being reinvented. 

But perhaps an economised version of space travel could reinvent this more quickly and efficiently. Virgin Galactic says its technology can be adapted to slash flight times anywhere on the planet to just 4-5 hours (reducing the nine-hour journey between Tokyo and San Francisco to a six-hour journey, for instance). 

United Airlines, which is trying to revive supersonic air travel, says that developing a whole new commercial supersonic jet would cost $10-15bn. Contrary to this, SpaceX charges $60m per launch of its Falcon spacecraft. There is room for immense cost-rationalisation here that can be made possible by mainstreaming private space travel quickly. 

When you consider the possibilities and advantages of international space travel (potentially even intergalactic space travel), the "fifteen minutes of space fame" dig can be easily dismissed. Bottom line is that space is cool and so are the people who have the means and the ability to put it within our reach. So when they fly, our planetary ambition as a species only goes high. 


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