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Space race: What Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson are each trying to achieve

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On the morning of Tuesday, July 20, former Amazon (AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos, along with passengers Mark Bezos, Wally Funk, and Oliver Daemen, took to the skies and beyond aboard Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital launch vehicle.

Bezos' maiden voyage came just over a week after English business magnate and founder of the Virgin Group (VGII) Sir Richard Branson's July 11 spaceflight aboard Virgin Galactic’s (SPCE) VSS Unity spacecraft.

VAN HORN, TEXAS - JULY 20:  The New Shepard Blue Origin rocket lifts-off from the launch pad carrying Jeff Bezos along with his brother Mark Bezos, 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, and 82-year-old Wally Funk prepare to launch on July 20, 2021 in Van Horn, Texas. Mr. Bezos and the crew are riding in the first human spaceflight for the company.   (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
VAN HORN, TEXAS - JULY 20: The New Shepard Blue Origin rocket lifts-off from the launch pad carrying Jeff Bezos along with his brother Mark Bezos, 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, and 82-year-old Wally Funk prepare to launch on July 20, 2021 in Van Horn, Texas. Mr. Bezos and the crew are riding in the first human spaceflight for the company. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In the past decade, both publicly traded and private aerospace firms have risen into prominence with aspirations of commercializing the final frontier. These companies are ushering in a new era of space exploration and travel — one that is catalyzed by free market competition. Companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, along with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are looking to make space exploration more affordable and accessible, as well as advance the progress of the human race.

“We are really just on the cusp of seeing the activity of commercial human space flight,” Commercial Spaceflight Federation President Karina Drees told Yahoo Finance Live. “Future generations are going to look at this moment as a pivotal moment for humanity when it comes to the expansion into space.”

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Though these three aerospace companies may share some similarities, they also differ greatly in their goals and methods for achieving them.

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin strives to build a cost-effective road to space

Blue Origin is an aerospace manufacturer and suborbital spaceflight services company founded in 2000 by former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Bezos and became the first aerospace company to complete an unpiloted suborbital flight with an all-civilian crew with paying tourist customers on the morning of July 20.

Headquartered in Kent, Washington, the company remains private and aims to make access to space more cost-effective and reliable through its reusable launch vehicles. A June estimate from Craft.co has Blue Origin employing approximately 3,390 people.

Bezos’ first trip to space, like Branson's, was a crewed suborbital spaceflight. However, Blue Origin used a vertical-takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL), crew-rated suborbital launch vehicle named “New Shepard.”

Launched from a facility near the small town of Van Horn, Texas, the New Shepard reached a maximum altitude of 65 miles, or just over 343,000 feet — substantially higher than Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, which reached 282,000 feet. Previous tests have shown that the New Shepard is capable of speeds of at least Mach 3, or over 2,200 mph.

Bezos and company experienced about three minutes of weightlessness. And though the New Shepard’s crew capsule can handle up to six passengers, this flight only included four people. Final ticket prices for Blue Origin space tours are still yet to be determined, but a winner of the lottery to sit alongside Bezos in his first spaceflight paid $29.7 million.

VAN HORN, TEXAS - JULY 20: (----EDITORIAL USE ONLY â MANDATORY CREDIT -
VAN HORN, TEXAS - JULY 20: Jeff Bezos along with his brother Mark Bezos, 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, and 82-year-old Wally Funk leave Blue Originâs New Shepard crew capsule after landing on July 20, 2021 in Van Horn, Texas. Mr. Bezos and the crew rode in the first human spaceflight for the company. (Photo by Blue Origin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic aims to dominate space tourism

Founded in 2004 and headquartered in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Branson’s Virgin Galactic is a commercial spacecraft developer and space tourism company. It earned its reputation through becoming the first publicly traded space tourism company in the world.

With a market cap of just over $7.5 billion, the latest estimate from Macrotrends has Virgin Galactic employing 823 people. Its long term goal is to dominate the space tourism market through its lineup of spaceplanes that will allow passengers to experience weightlessness in zero-gravity in suborbital spaceflight. (A spaceflight is “suborbital” when the spacecraft does not travel fast enough to enter Earth’s orbit, but rather, briefly crosses the boundary of space before traveling back down to Earth.)

Sir Richard Branson speaks after he flew into space aboard a Virgin Galactic vessel, a voyage he described as the
Sir Richard Branson speaks after he flew into space aboard a Virgin Galactic vessel, a voyage he described as the "experience of a lifetime" -- and one he hopes will usher in an era of lucrative space tourism at Spaceport America, near Truth and Consequences, New Mexico on July 11, 2021. (Photo by Patrick T. FALLON / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

Though Branson’s July 11 flight was not the company’s first successful manned flight, it marked Branson’s first time reaching space and served as a critical test flight before commercial operations could begin. Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft differs from those of Blue Origin and SpaceX in that it utilizes a spaceplane rather than a reusable rocket. The spaceplane itself must be carried to a certain altitude by a carrier aircraft launch platform before being released to climb further into space using its own boosters.

Launched from Spaceport America in Sierra County, New Mexico, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, a SpaceShipTwo-class suborbital rocket-powered crewed spaceplane, was carried by the VMS Eve, a carrier aircraft, above 40,000 feet before they separated during Branson’s July 11 flight. 

NEW MEXICO, USA - JULY 11: Sir Richard Branson flew into space aboard a Virgin Galactic vessel, a voyage he described as the
Sir Richard Branson flew into space aboard a Virgin Galactic vessel, a voyage he described as the "experience of a lifetime" at the Spaceport America in New Mexico, United States on July 11, 2021. (Photo by Virgin Galactic / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

VSS Unity reached a maximum altitude of about 282,000 feet, well above the 264,000-foot line at which space “begins.” Branson and those onboard achieved a top speed of Mach 3.2 or 2,435 mph, and experienced weightlessness for about 3 minutes.

Though the VSS Unity can seat a total of eight people, including two pilots, Branson’s maiden voyage included just three other passengers, excluding pilots David Mackay and Michael Masucci. Tickets for a 2.5-hour round trip to and from space with Virgin Galactic are expected to cost $250,000.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX aspires to resupply astronauts — and then colonize Mars

SpaceX is an aerospace manufacturer as well as a space transportation services and communications company, founded by Tesla (TSLA) CEO Elon Musk in 2002, that currently employs between 9,500 and 10,000.

The company is known for being the first private company to successfully launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft, the first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS), and the producer of the first successful vertical take-off and vertical landing orbital rocket, among other feats. 

Musk's long-term goal is to colonize Mars through more efficient space travel methods.

SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk and NASA acting administrator Steve Jurczyk visit with Crew-2, ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet of France, NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough and JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide of Japan inside the crew suit-up room, before the boarding of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon capsule bound for the International Space Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., April 23, 2021. Picture taken April 23, 2021.  NASA/Kim Shiflett/Handout via REUTERS.   MANDATORY CREDIT. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.
SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk and NASA acting administrator Steve Jurczyk visit with Crew-2, ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet of France, NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough and JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide of Japan inside the crew suit-up room, before the boarding of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon capsule bound for the International Space Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., April 23, 2021.(NASA/Kim Shiflett/Handout via REUTERS)

Headquartered in Hawthorne, California, the company, which is not publicly traded, is estimated to be worth as much as $74 billion, according to Forbes. 

More recently, SpaceX made headlines once again for its Crew-1 mission, the company’s first operational mission to send astronauts to the ISS as a part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft containing four astronauts was launched atop a reusable, two-stage Falcon 9 rocket on Nov. 16, 2020 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), now Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS).

Having successfully reached the ISS, Crew-1 reached a maximum altitude of 285 miles above Earth (the ISS’s orbit height can fluctuate between 174 and 285 miles) and a top speed of at least Mach 23, or 17,500 mph, which is required to enter low Earth orbit. The official mission time was clocked at 167 days, six hours, and 29 minutes, with Crew-1 spending approximately 167 days in space and touching down on the morning of May 2, 2021.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon 2 spacecraft lifts off on pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for a re-supply mission to the International Space Station from Cape Canaveral, Fla., Thursday, June 3, 2021. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon 2 spacecraft lifts off on pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for a re-supply mission to the International Space Station from Cape Canaveral, Fla., Thursday, June 3, 2021. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

As for goals in the long term, SpaceX maintains its developmental program to facilitate the eventual colonization of Mars. Musk announced that the first manned mission to Mars may come as early as 2026, with unmanned missions first taking place in the years prior. 

Though many details surrounding SpaceX’s mission to Mars are still unknown, the company is working closely with NASA and other experts to draft plans. It is also likely that the Starship system, SpaceX’s fully reusable launch vehicle composed of a booster stage named Super Heavy and a second stage called "Starship,” will play a crucial role in getting the first humans to set foot on the Red Planet.

Thomas Hum is a writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @thomashumTV

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