New York TimesJuly 22, 2021 15:31:17 IST
The anniversary of the landing of the moon Apollo was one small step for space travel, but a huge leap for space billionaires.
Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson vividly showed this month that ascending into the sky seemed safe and, above all, branched out. There are so many problems on the planet that it is a relief to escape them for up to 10 minutes, which was roughly the length of the suborbital rides that the entrepreneurs offered through their companies Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.
But behind the glare was a deeper message: The Amazonization of Space has begun in earnest. Formerly largely under large governments, the area is now increasingly the realm of Big Tech. People who sold you the Internet are now selling you the moon and stars.
Bezos, Amazon’s founder and still its largest shareholder, announced at a news conference after Tuesday’s flight that Blue Origin was open for business. Although tickets were generally not available, flight sales were already approaching $ 100 million. Bezos did not say each price, but added: “Demand is very high.”
This demand existed even before the world media collected Van Horn in Texas, a comprehensive and ambitious description of Bezos by doing something Branson had done in New Mexico the week before. They saw a carefully organized event featuring the world’s oldest astronaut of all time and the world’s youngest voyage, a $ 200 million charity gift.
Even rival SpaceX CEO Elos Musk and sometimes a skeptic of Bezos ’space dreams felt compelled to congratulate. So did Branson, who got the bragging rights by making the flight first. Musk went to see Branson.
All this space activity is the beginning of a new, but also a repetition of the 1990s. At the beginning of that decade, the Internet was for a few state-owned research and communications. By the end, thanks to Bezos more than anyone, it was a place for everyone to buy things. Over the next 20 years, the technology grew and became Big Tech, causing fears on both sides that Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple are now too powerful.
Space can now embark on a similar journey from the border to large companies.
For decades, NASA didn’t get enough funding to do anything as epic as the Apollo program. The Trump administration ordered a return to the moon by 2024. The goal has been accepted by the Biden administration, but not a date. If it happens at all, it will happen with the help of companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. Unlike the Apollo project in the 1960s, the next trip to the moon is outsourced.
Smaller space companies are even more open to entrepreneurs.
“If you look at space today, especially in terms of activity in Earth’s orbit, it’s really similar to the early days of the Internet,” said West Griffin, Axiom’s CFO, a startup looking to build the first commercial space station.
Commercialization of space began in the dot-com boom of the 1990s, but it took much longer to implement. This month’s flights begin in 1996, when the nonprofit X Prize announced a competition: $ 10 million for the first NGO to build a reusable spacecraft that could take someone 100 kilometers or 62.5 miles and then do it again in less than two weeks.
The winning model in 2004 proved to be a SpaceShipOne effort led by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, who previously designed a Voyager aircraft that flew around the world without stopping or refueling. It was funded by Paul Allen, the founder of Microsoft who died in 2018.
The X Award also piqued Branson’s interest. He branded “Virgin Galactic Airways” in 1999 and licensed SpaceShipOne technology. Branson hoped the larger version could begin commercial flights within three years. It lasted 17 years.
The swelling ecosystem of startups is trying to commercialize space by building everything from cheaper launch technology to smaller satellites to the infrastructure that forms the “hacks and shovels” of space gold rushes, as Meagan Crawford, CEO of venture capital firm SpaceFund, says.
“People look around by going,‘ There’s this strong space industry. Where did it come from? ‘ “Crawford said. “Well, it’s built systematically and purposefully, and there’s been a lot of hard work over the last 30 years to get us here.”
Investors poured $ 7 billion into start-ups in 2020, double the amount just two years earlier, according to space analysis firm Bryce Tech.
“We’re all trying now to do what Jeff, Richard and Elon did 20 years ago, which is just building great companies, except that we’re building companies in space from scratch and they built their companies on earth,” said Chris Kemp, CEO of Astra, who focused on providing smaller, cheaper and more frequent shots.
The first space race, which dates back to the 1960s and then ended in steam in the 1970s, opposed the brazen action taken by the United States against the malevolent and charming Soviet Union. Americans won the competition, although critics argued that everything was a mistake in an era when so many domestic things needed attention and money.
This time? Almost the same, though now it’s personal. A petition in which Bezos was not allowed to return to earth drew 180,000 virtual signatures. Senate Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, tweets: “It’s time for Jeff Bezos to do business here on earth and pay his fair share of taxes.”
Musk tweet about defense space projects, written in a laconic style reminiscent of poet EE Cummings:
those who attack space
maybe not realize it
space represents hope
for so many people
Tweet garnered more than a quarter of a million “likes,” though the answers were like this: “No one is attacking space. We’re attacking billionaires who have amassed huge fortunes behind the exploited workforce.”
In an interview CNN on Monday at the Texas launch site, Bezos said his critics were “for the most part right.”
“We have to do both,” he said. “We have a lot of problems here and now on earth, and we have to work with them. And we always have to look to the future.”
But it is clear which perspective attracts his attention. In 1982, as a high school pseudo-editor, Bezos spoke of the importance of creating life in huge free-floating space colonies for millions of people. “The idea is to preserve the earth,” the Miami Herald quoted his message at the time, adding that his ultimate goal was to see the planet “turn into a huge national park.”
Bezos said the same thing this week. It was a utopian dream with many complex moving parts – just like a smaller-scale retailer who would sell everything to everyone and make deliveries in an hour. And to the surprise of almost everyone, he did that job.
Branson has launched another space area, Virgin Orbit, which will launch small payloads into orbit. He has not hinted at great visions like Musk and Bezos to spread civilization to the solar system.
Musk’s dreams of Mars began with a small quixotic endeavor: He wanted to send the plant to Mars and see if it could grow there. But even the cost of starting a small experiment was unreasonable. Even the options in Russia were out of reach. So Musk founded SpaceX in 2002.
Today he wants to send people to Mars, not plants. SpaceX is currently developing Starship, which is large enough to make the trip, and a Starlink satellite Internet connection aimed at generating the profits needed to fund Mars plans.
After achieving those goals, the company has become the Behemoth of space operations. NASA relies on SpaceX rockets and capsules to send astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station, and private, government and military satellite operators fly the orbit of the reusable Falcon 9 rocket.
NASA has recently contracted SpaceX to use its Starship prototype for the lunar program. Blue Origin and another company, Dynetics, challenged the deal. With all the chamber radars on display this week, billionaires are playing to win.
David Streitfeld and Erin Woo circa 2021 The New York Times Company