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A Virgin Galactic rocket plane carrying the company’s founder, Richard Branson, reached the edge of space on Sunday during a hotly anticipated and heavily publicized flight that made the British entrepreneur the ostensible winner of a new billionaire space race.
The launch had initially been planned for later in the summer, but it was moved up after Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, announced he would be heading to space on a rocket built by his company Blue Origin later this month. Branson has denied that there’s any competition between him and Bezos, but that hasn’t stopped the companies from quibbling over whether Sunday’s flight went high enough to count as going to space. Virgin Galactic’s plane cleared the threshold of 50 miles that NASA considers the barrier between Earth’s atmosphere and space, but flew below the international standard of 62 miles — the altitude Blue Origin intends to reach.
Though the launches have pitted Branson and Bezos against each other, their companies have drastically different roles in the burgeoning private space industry. Virgin Galactic is focused entirely on space tourism. Blue Origin has a broader vision that includes satellites, trips to the moon and, one day, floating space colonies. That model puts Blue Origin in more direct competition with SpaceX, the firm founded by Elon Musk — whose own interplanetary ambitions involve sending humans to Mars. SpaceX has dominated the commercial space industry recently, racking up lucrative contracts with everyone from NASA to the U.S. military to private satellite builders for SpaceX rockets to send their equipment and crews into space.
Why there’s debate
These billionaires have all made the case that advances in space technology pioneered by their companies will benefit humankind as a whole. While the notion induces eyerolls from critics, some space experts agree. “I think what these billionaires are doing is great,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said.
Supporters of the billionaire space race make two arguments in its favor. The first is a practical one. They argue that the battle for space dominance among these companies will lead to technological breakthroughs that will ultimately be utilized by people on Earth — just as the space race of the 1960s did. Others say companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX are a boon for science because their advanced new rockets open up new opportunities for research that cash-strapped space agencies like NASA aren’t able to complete on their own. The second argument in favor is more philosophical. Private space companies have reignited the world’s passion for space exploration, which had been dormant for decades, they argue. “We never want to lose our character as explorers, as adventurers,” Nelson said.
Critics say the billionaires are much more focused on personal glory and profit than they are on any benefits that might trickle down to regular people. If Bezos, Musk and Branson were truly concerned about benefiting humanity, detractors argue, they would put their vast wealth and ingenuity toward solving the many major problems facing people on Earth, like climate change, poverty and hunger.
There are also concerns that the endgame of the billionaire space race will ultimately be the de facto privatization of space, where a small number of firms hold virtual monopolies on what was once considered a realm that belonged to everyone. Many scientists also scoff at the loftier goals of colonies in orbit, the moon and Mars pitched by Bezos and Musk, as somewhere between far-fetched and outright impossible.
Bezos is scheduled to launch into space aboard a Blue Origin rocket on July 20. Musk announced this week that he would be heading to space on a Virgin Galactic flight in the near future.
It’s important that humans always be reaching for the impossible
“In a world with life-and-death needs for technological advancements — cures for cancer and infectious diseases, carbon sequestration and geo-engineering to mitigate climate change — can we really celebrate the entrepreneurs who have chosen to spend billions of dollars on space tourism? Yes, we can. We still want some visionaries to put money behind curiosity and imagination. We still need to push the limits of human experience and pursue what seems impossible or impractical.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times
Western billionaires are needed to keep the U.S. as the dominant force in space
“The private space race among these entrepreneurs is part of a far more important marathon between Red China and the United States. Whichever nation wins the new space race will determine the future of the earth below.” — Brandon J. Weichert, National Review
Companies like Virgin Galactic are making space more accessible
“The billionaire aspect of this space race is an unfortunate distraction. The much more important part is we are democratizing access [to space]. This is a coming-of-age moment.” — Space industry analyst Caleb Williams, MIT Technology Review
We should celebrate ambitious plans that push technology forward
“It’s not just about egos. Whenever you’re breaking into new territory — whether it's with electricity, airplanes or rockets — it often takes radical entrepreneurs to move the human experience to the next level.” — Space policy expert Greg Autry to NBC News
Beyond the spectacle, the launches represent important technological achievements
“These ‘events’ will be worth watching because of the technical achievements they represent for the companies involved, and the teams that worked hard on making sure either spacecraft is able to safely transport humans to space; the billionaires on board are mere chattel, weight and mass simulators that can provide a surprisingly good, but not altogether perfect, simulacrum of a human passenger.” — Darrell Etherington, TechCrunch
Private rocket companies free NASA to focus on its scientific goals
“NASA’s always interested in being able to access space more inexpensively; launching things into space is very, very costly. … So I think the reasoning is that if you can make that less expensive and somebody else takes on the risk, if you can contract that out, then that’s beneficial to NASA.” — Astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz to Slate
The space race is inspired by a combination of vanity and greed
“When you understand the science, it becomes clear that the ‘billionaire space race’ is just that — nothing more than a pissing contest between egotistical robber barons.” — Sim Kern, Salon
There are much more important things the billionaires should spend their money on
“The billionaires, though, would rather not deal with the less-sexy problems of planetary inequality, world hunger, and climate refugees when they have their ‘space toys’ to play with instead. The billionaires want cocktail hours on rocket ships, 11 minutes in space, future business opportunities. The billionaires say they are helping, but it also looks suspiciously like leaving.” — Jeva Lange, The Week
Rocket rides that are only available to the superrich aren’t about democratizing space
“Wealthy people paying their way into exclusive, difficult-to-access spaces is as old as time. Tying spaceflight to wealth further emphasizes that space is yet another playground of the rich.” — Astrophysicist Lucianne Walkowicz to Space.com
Billionaires can’t be allowed to monopolize space
“We have handed over so much of our fate to so few people over the last decades, especially when it comes to critical technology. As we take tentative steps toward leaving Earth, it feels like we are continuing to place too much of our trust in the hands of tech titans. Think about it: We the people invented the internet, and the tech moguls pretty much own it. And we the people invented space travel, and it now looks as if the moguls could own that, too.” — Kara Swisher, New York Times
The media shouldn’t indulge billionaires in their silly and harmful obsessions
“The billionaire obsession with space fantasy (and our willingness to go along with it) isn’t just disappointing, it’s nihilistic. Our idolatry of innovators is morphing into phantasmagoria.” — Scott Galloway, Business Insider
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