While both events were marked as milestones in ushering in a new era of commercial space travel, some space industry figures say there are inherent problems with giving business leaders the keys to space. These leaders also include SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who along with Bezos and Branson, has shown great interest in the space sector.
“They may not make the wisest or most ethical decisions for all of us,” said Jordan Bimm, a space historian at the University of Chicago.
According to Bimm, for Bezos and especially Musk, tourism is just one step in a grand vision of private space settlement. “Bezos envisions millions of humans living off-world in verdant cylindrical space stations. Musk, on the other hand, is fixated on Mars and establishing a million-person city there,” he added.
But this approach is perilous, according to Bimm. He said: “Can we trust them to establish just and humane off-world social and political orders?”
Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
The shift to privatized space travel could also shake up the way NASA operates in the future, Bimm said: “It could mean a revitalized NASA, or a NASA that shifts into more of a basic space science and advisory role to private companies doing human spaceflight.”
Billionaire business leaders are also changing the career path into the space industry, experts told Insider.
“What is changing is the type of elite person allowed to go there,” Bimm said. “Before, it was soldiers and later scientists, and now we are seeing the very wealthy and their handpicked companions added to this elite lineage,” he said.
Michael Brown, assistant professor from the School of Physics and Astronomy at Monash University, agreed, saying that in previous decades those chosen for spaceflight missions tended to be pilots, scientists, engineers, and doctors.
Back then, crews were also carefully selected by a committee of government experts. “Later on, novelist Tom Wolfe famously described what set these astronauts apart as ‘the right stuff’- essentially skill, bravery, and ego,” Bimm said.
But to get to space today, you simply need the “right funds” to buy a ticket, according to Bimm. Or “as we saw in the case of Oliver Daemen and Mark Bezos, the right family to buy a ticket for you.”
Bimm added: “The flight was exciting to watch but also raises key questions about the future: what, and more to the point, who is space for? Soldiers, scientists, and now the wealthy.”
There are many unanswered questions about how accessible space travel really is but according to Brown, “space billionaires are only broadening space access to space millionaires.” He said the access they provide is “limited to a couple of minutes of floating.”
Matthew Hersch, a historian of aerospace technology at Harvard University, said that although the invention of commercial space travel is great, demand from ordinary people seems low.
“We haven’t seen evidence that demand for space launch services is elastic enough to support selling launch services to average people, even if they can be offered cheaply enough,” Hersch added.
That’s according to Virgin Galactic ticket holder, Caroline Freeland, who told Insider that she has met the 82-year-old on several occasions.
After buying her $250,000 ticket for a trip to the edge of space on Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceship, Freeland, 58, was invited to former astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s 49th and 50th anniversary parties.
The three-day celebrations in Cape Canaveral allowed Freeland to get to know many well-known astronauts, including Funk, who is the oldest person to travel into space.
Freeland, who has already completed some training for her spaceflight with Virgin Galactic, described Funk as “very understated … engaging, easy, charming, happy, and fun.”
The recent Blue Origin astronaut “really bounces around … she has the energy of 6,000 labradors,” Freeland said.
Funk was part of a group of female aviators called Mercury 13 in anticipation of flying to space in the 1960s but she never got the chance to go. Bezos asked Funk to join him, his brother, and 18-year-old Oliver Daemen on a trip to space in Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket.
Funk also traveled to London and gave a speech about her experience in the space industry to 10 to 15 Virgin Galactic ticket holders, which Freeland said she attended.
Freeland said that these meetups were “one of the wonderful things about this whole journey to becoming a future astronaut.”
The ticket holder and future astronaut said she’s also met Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, who she described as a “lovely chap.” Branson beat Bezos to space by nine days when Virgin Galactic flew its first crewed mission 55 miles above Earth.
Freeland, who is London-based, said she also met former NASA astronaut, Mike Massimino, at the parties.
Billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have drawn public attention to space tourism after they traveled to the edge of space this month, but it’s unlikely the average person will get to visit space in the foreseeable future.
It is likely that space tourism will be a hobby solely reserved for billionaires and centi-millionaires for many years to come.
While Bezos’ Blue Origin has yet to release its ticket prices, the Amazon founder has indicated that the tickets will be competitive with Branson’s company. The first available ticket on Bezos’ flight sold for $28 million at auction and the entire 10 minute trip on Tuesday cost the billionaire about $5.5 billion out-of-pocket. The same day, the company said it had sold about $100 million worth of tickets for future passengers to ride on the 4-person aircraft.
Bezos said he plans to launch future flights at a “very high” rate going forward. “We need to get as good at running space tours as we are as a civilization at running commercial airliners,” he said.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said that he believes the cost of going to space, in particular visiting Mars (a trip that would cost about $10 billion per person using current technology), will one day be equivalent to the cost of buying a house.
But, the truth is current technology is too expensive for the average person to be able to afford a seat on one of Bezos, Branson or Musk’s rockets. Though Bezos and Musk have been progressively working to make space travel more affordable through the development of reusable rockets, the industry is still in its beginning stages.
Space law experts told Insider that even outside of the sheer cost of space tourism there are several hurdles the companies must overcome before space tourism can become a viable industry for everyday people. These include creating standard regulations akin to the policies that guard airplanes, as well as developing strategies to better manage air travel and pollution from the flights.
People who ride with Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic “are not astronauts or passengers, legally speaking,” the director of McGill’s Institute of Air and Space Law, Ram Jakhu told Insider. “They are called spaceflight participants, which means they are essentially people participating in an experiment with a massive risk.”
As it stands, individuals that currently purchase space tourism tickets must sign an informed consent document releasing companies from liability if the ticket-holders are injured or killed.
Spokespeople from Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic did not respond to a request for comment, but Jakhu and Frans Von der Dunk, a professor of Space Law at University of Nebraska-Lincoln told Insider the risk would likely deter the general public, even if the hefty price tag had not already narrowed the field of participants.
What’s more the flights themselves would also have to be more persuasive for tourists.
“Right now, these flights are just a sophisticated form of bungee jumping,” Von der Dunk said.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Virgin’s Richard Branson blasted themselves into space this month, while SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s grand vision is colonizing Mars. Warren Buffett doesn’t share his fellow billionaires’ passion for interstellar travel – he ruled out leaving Earth 25 years ago.
Buffett – who made his fortune investing in staid companies like Coca-Cola and Gillette – takes the same approach to fast-changing businesses and industries as he does to extraterrestrial voyages, he said in his 1996 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders.
“As investors, our reaction to a fermenting industry is much like our attitude toward space exploration: We applaud the endeavor but prefer to skip the ride,” Buffett said.
The 90-year-old investor clearly has zero interest in planning a trip to space. However, he found it a useful analogy to underscore the problem of a ballooning global population on a planet with limited resources during Berkshire’s shareholder meeting in 2002.
“If you were going to go on a spaceship for a hundred years and you knew in the back of the spaceship there were a lot of provisions, but you didn’t know exactly how much – in terms of filling the front of the spaceship with a given number of people, you would probably err on the low side,” Buffett said.
The Berkshire chief argued that if the exact amount of provisions and the precise timing of the spaceship’s return were unclear, it would make sense to be conservative with passenger numbers and reduce the risk of mass starvation.
“We are in a vehicle called Earth,” Buffett continued. “We don’t know its carrying capacity. We have learned that it’s a lot larger than might have been thought by Malthus or somebody a few hundred years ago, but that doesn’t mean it’s infinite at all.”
Buffett returned to the subject of space at Berkshire’s annual meeting this year. When an audience member asked if Berkshire would insure Musk’s mission to Mars, the investor quipped that he would charge a lower premium if the Tesla CEO was on the spaceship.
“I would probably have a somewhat different rate if Elon was on board or not on board,” he said. “It makes a difference. If somebody is asking you to insure something, that’s called getting skin in the game.”
Bezos and his companions took off for the edge of space at 8:12 a.m. CT on Tuesday from Blue Origin’s launch site in Texas.
Along with Daemon, Bezos was joined by his brother, Mark, and 82-year-old aviator Wally Funk, who trained to go to space in the 1960s but was ultimately denied the opportunity because she was a woman. Funk is now the oldest person to reach space. Daemon is the youngest.
The crew rode a New Shepard rocket up to the Kármán line – an imaginary boundary 62 miles (100 kilometers) above sea level, where many experts say space begins.
The entire voyage lasted just over 10 minutes, but the crew was only weightless for three minutes. During that time, they unbuckled, floated around the cabin, and tossed around orange ping pong balls and candy. Then they briefly took in the bird’s-eye views of Earth.
“It felt way cooler than it looked,” Daemen said after watching the video footage.
“Everyone on the ground was way more emotional than we were,” he added. “We were just having fun.”
Tuesday marked New Shepard’s first passenger flight. (The rocket has successfully flown 15 times without people on board.) But Bezos isn’t the first billionaire to fly his company’s rocket to the edge of space.
Blue Origin has argued that Branson didn’t go to space, since he only flew to about 55 miles above sea level and did not pass the Kármán line. But both NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration have awarded astronaut wings to pilots who flew past 50 miles.
Funk is an 82-year-old aviator who was invited by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to be an “honored guest” on his spaceflight on Tuesday. But over a decade ago, Funk paid $200,000 for a future ride on Virgin Galactic’s suborbital plane, according to The Guardian – and it seems she has no intention of giving up her seat.
“At this point, yes, Wally is planning to fly with Virgin Galactic too,” Funk’s agent, Loretta Hall, told Insider in an email last week.
Virgin Galactic told Insider that the company didn’t comment on “the identities of Future Astronauts.” Blue Origin did not respond to a request for comment on Funk’s plans.
Earlier this month, Bezos announced Funk would join him, his younger brother Mark, and a third passenger on their 11-minute trip to space. (The other passenger was later revealed to be 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, who replaced the winning bidder in an auction for the seat after that passenger had “scheduling conflicts.”)
“No one has waited longer,” Bezos wrote in an Instagram post. “It’s time. Welcome to the crew, Wally.”
A post shared by Jeff Bezos (@jeffbezos)
In 1961, Funk joined an all-woman space mission dubbed “Mercury 13.” She embarked on an extensive series of tests and trainings, which she aced – she told Texas Monthly that the researchers told her she had performed better than any other astronaut in the program, man or woman.
But the program was ultimately scrapped, and Funk never made it to space. In 1962, two of the women from the program testified before the House Committee on Science and Astronautics that they were being denied the opportunity simply because they were women.
Funk later embarked on a long career in flight, becoming the first female safety inspector at the Federal Aviation Administration and working with the National Transportation Safety Board, according to Texas Monthly.
In a video posted on Bezos’ Instagram account, Funk said she had taught over 3,000 people to fly.
Blue Origin vs. Virgin Galactic
Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft lifted off shortly after 9 a.m. on Tuesday morning.
The flight took Bezos and company 62 miles above Earth to the edge of space. Inside the spacecraft, Bezos and his fellow passengers had roughly three minutes to float around and view Earth from afar or gaze into the depths of outer space.
While Blue Origin’s mission was a major milestone – it’s the first time the company has sent human passengers into space – it was slightly eclipsed by Virgin Galactic and its billionaire founder, Richard Branson.
Still, Virgin plans to start offering suborbital flights to space tourists next year, and has already sold 600 tickets to hopeful space tourists, including SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk – and, of course, Funk.
Fellow billionaire Richard Branson congratulated Jeff Bezos for reaching the edge of space on Tuesday morning.
Bezos joined his brother, Mark Bezos, 82-year-old aviator Wally Funk, and 18-year-old Dutch high-school graduate Oliver Daemen in a brief blast off to the edge of space. The crew traveled on a New Shepard rocket built by Bezos’s company, Blue Origin.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX may be the buzziest name in private space exploration, but the Tesla CEO isn’t the only superrich entrepreneur with grand visions for humanity’s future beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
The Amazon founder and fellow centi-billionaire, Jeff Bezos, has his own space firm – Blue Origin. He flew on the company’s human flight to the edge of space on Tuesday, launching 62 miles above the Earth’s surface aboard its New Shepard rocket.
Richard Branson, whose Virgin Group dabbles in everything from airlines to healthcare, launched a commercial-spaceflight company of his own called Virgin Galactic. Earlier this month, he launched 53.5 skyward on one of the company’s rocket-powered planes, fulfilling a decades-long dream of traveling to space.
These three companies were all founded within a few years of one another in the early 2000s, but each has its own business model and plans for a space-faring future.
Here’s what Musk, Bezos, and Branson are each trying to accomplish, and where their efforts stand today.
Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, years before becoming Tesla’s outspoken CEO and cementing himself as a regular fixture in the Twittersphere.
The company grew out of an idea Musk had to send a spacecraft called the “Mars Oasis” to the red planet. The vehicle would deliver an experimental greenhouse and equipment for taking photos of the planet and sending them back to Earth. Musk hoped the project would spark a renewed interest in getting to Mars within the US government.
That’s what the Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX has spent the better part of the past two decades trying to achieve, and it’s made some great strides.
It has completed numerous launches for commercial and government customers, and in 2012 it became the first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station. In 2020 it became the first to send humans to space and to the ISS. And in April NASA picked the company to land the first astronauts on the Moon since 1972.
SpaceX is also working on a broadband-internet service consisting of thousands of satellites, called Starlink. The service hopes to deliver high-speed internet to remote and rural areas, and SpaceX recently said it had more than 500,000 orders and deposits.
Ultimately, Musk thinks humanity’s future hinges on its ability to settle Mars. He said in 2020 that he wanted to establish a city of 1 million people on Mars by 2050. Settlers would get there using a fleet of 1,000 SpaceX Starships – the towering, 387-foot-tall rocket ship the company is designing for deep-space travel.
Like Musk, the Amazon billionaire Bezos’ fascination with space travel stretches back decades. He’s been particularly taken with the physicist Gerard O’Neill’s visions of floating space stations that could house trillions of humans once Earth runs out of resources.
To indulge his obsession, Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000 with a similar goal as Musk’s venture: Make space exploration cheaper through boosters that can be recycled for future launches. The Kent, Washington-based company operated in total secrecy until about 2003, and Bezos stayed tight-lipped about its plans for more than a decade after that.
For years now, the company has been testing a suborbital rocket called New Shepard, built to take paying tourists to the edge of space in a pressurized capsule. The idea is that on a Blue Origin flight, space tourists will be able to catch a glimpse of Earth through large windows and experience a few minutes of weightlessness.
“Ever since I was five years old, I’ve dreamed of traveling to space,” Jeff Bezos wrote in an Instagram post. “On July 20th, I will take that journey with my brother. The greatest adventure, with my best friend.”
The company is also developing a larger rocket called New Glenn for delivering payloads to low orbit, along with a secretive future project called New Armstrong. If you’re sensing a pattern here, you’re right – Blue Origin’s launch vehicles are all named for former NASA astronauts.
In 2019, Bezos revealed plans for a lunar lander called Blue Moon, which the company said would be ready in 2024 and would eventually help establish a “sustained human presence” on the moon. Blue Origin bid for a contract to land NASA astronauts on the moon and was beat out by SpaceX – but the company is disputing the decision.
When Bezos announced plans to step down as Amazon’s CEO in 2021, he said he planned to dedicate more time to his other ventures, including Blue Origin. And in a 2018 interview with Mathias Döpfner, the CEO of Insider’s parent company, Axel Springer, Bezos called the rocket company his “most important work.”
Branson’s space venture differs from Blue Origin and SpaceX in a couple of key ways. Virgin Galactic is focused on suborbital tourism, rather than launching people and payloads into space. It also has a radically different method of sending spacecraft out of Earth’s atmosphere.
Virgin Galactic doesn’t launch rockets straight up from the ground like its rivals. Instead, its spacecraft are meant to be flown to 50,000 feet by a broad, dual-fuselage jet called WhiteKnightTwo. From there, the ship detaches and glides for a few seconds before firing up its rocket motor and beginning a near-vertical ascent to about 300,000 feet.
The company completed its first fully-crewed flight to the edge of space earlier this month, launching its founder and others more than 50 miles skyward. Virgin Galactic planned to accept passengers in 2021, it’s pushed those plans to next year. It has sold 600 tickets for $200,000 to $250,000 apiece.
When the spacecraft reaches its final altitude, customers will be able to get out of their seats and spend several minutes floating around the luxurious cabin and gazing back at Earth or out into space. Virgin also plans to offer flights for research purposes. Once the spacecraft is pulled back into Earth’s atmosphere, it will be piloted back to Virgin’s New Mexico facility for a runway landing.
Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft are reusable, aside from their fuel, and the company hopes to make launching things and people into space more economical and environmentally sound.
In March, Virgin Galactic unveiled the VSS Imagine, the first of its next-generation SpaceShip III vehicles. Before that, it had built and flown two SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, including the VSS Enterprise, which was obliterated in a fatal crash in 2014.
In the future, Virgin Galactic plans to operate a fleet of vehicles that could fly tourists to space hotels, transport researchers to floating labs, or provide lightning-fast transcontinental flights. In 2017, it spun off a company called Virgin Orbit, which is working to send satellites into orbit using a similar air-launch system.
Billionaires have long hoped to pioneer a new era of commercial space travel. Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson became the first billionaire to reach the edge of space when he flew on board his rocket, the VSS Unity, on July 11.
Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon and aerospace company Blue Origin, said Monday he was “excited” to see how his journey to the edge of space Tuesday affected him.
“I’m so excited. I can’t wait to see what it’s going to be like,” Bezos told the “TODAY” show’s Hoda Kotb during an interview Monday. “People say they go into space and they come back changed. Astronauts always talk about that.
“Whether it’s the thin limb of the earth’s atmosphere and seeing how fragile the planet is – that it’s just one planet. I can’t wait to see what it’s going to do to me,” he added.
Daemen is Blue Origin’s first paying customer, having participated in an auction for the seat in June. The winner of that auction, who bid $28 million, backed out of the Tuesday flight due to “scheduling conflicts,” leaving a seat open for Daemen.