When Jeff Bezos welcomed SpaceX to the rocket landing “club” last week, it set off a round of twittering over whether Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and fellow billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX were really in the same league. What kind of club was Bezos talking about?
— Lee Grindinger (@LeeGrins) December 22, 2015
— Mike Sudyk (@sudyk) December 22, 2015
The club that Bezos had in mind was precisely defined: It consists of ventures that can launch a rocket booster from the ground into space, and then bring that booster back intact for a vertical landing.
Blue Origin was the first to become a member, during a November test flight of its suborbital New Shepard spaceship in Texas. SpaceX followed in December, with the successful landing of its Falcon 9’s first-stage booster after the launch of 11 Orbcomm telecommunication satellites.
Lots of folks have pointed out how much more difficult it is to bring back a booster after an orbital launch, as opposed to New Shepard’s up-and-down suborbital trip. The Falcon 9 stage is more than 10 times as powerful and rose twice as high as New Shepard. The implications are greater, as well: Musk says total rocket reusability could lower the cost of delivering satellites and other payloads to orbit by a factor of 100, and eventually open the way for building a city on Mars.
Based on Bezos’ narrow definition of the club, Blue Origin may have been the first member, but this month SpaceX took the lead. (By the way, both companies have yet to show that the rockets they recovered are truly reusable.)
Let’s say you widen the definition even slightly, to include rocket ships that breached the 100-kilometer boundary of outer space (a.k.a. the Karman Line) and came back for a horizontal runway landing. Then you could arguably add the U.S. Air Force’s X-15, NASA’s space shuttles and the privately built, prize-winning SpaceShipOne rocket plane.
So which is the club that counts? When it comes to boosting spaceflight, you could say there’s a “Billionaire Space Club” whose members are vying for attention (as well as aerospace engineers and launch contracts). Their ambitions, and their target markets, overlap like a Venn diagram:
Elon Musk is going after orbital spaceflight and beyond, with the aim of making humanity a multiplanet species. But he has other tech-frontier interests, including electric storage and transportation (Tesla Motors), solar energy production (Solar City), high-speed transit (Hyperloop) and artificial intelligence (OpenAI).
SpaceX started out with satellite launches, then gained multibillion-dollar contracts to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. The next steps include flying heavyweight national security payloads, ferrying astronauts into orbit and laying the groundwork for missions to Mars.
Jeff Bezos is best-known for founding America’s biggest online retailer, Seattle-based Amazon, but he founded Blue Origin to follow through on a childhood dream: making spaceflight affordable in order “to seed an enduring human presence in space.” In his book about Bezos and Amazon, “The Everything Store,” Brad Stone quotes a close friend as saying “the reason he’s earning so much money is to get to outer space.”
That means Blue Origin isn’t just a hobby: New Shepard, which is designed to carry tourists as well as researchers and their scientific payloads on short suborbital trips, is merely the start. Blue Origin is also working on rocket engines (the BE-4) and orbital launch systems (to be built in Florida) that would compete with SpaceX hardware. Speaking of money, Bezos has more of it than Musk: $46.7 billion vs. $13 billion.
Richard Branson, the founder of myriad Virgin ventures, is pursuing his own dreams of spaceflight through Virgin Galactic. The billionaire (net worth: $5.1 billion) bought the rights to the technology behind SpaceShipOne and ramped it up for SpaceShipTwo. Last year, Virgin Galactic suffered a catastrophic setback when the first SpaceShipTwo broke up during a test flight, killing the co-pilot and injuring the pilot. A second SpaceShipTwo is being prepared for testing, however, and 700 customers are waiting to take a ride.
Bezos’ suborbital success could be seen as more of a challenge to Branson than to Musk, as Parabolic Arc’s Doug Messier pointed out last week. Like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin is going after the tourist market as well as research flights, which have been called the “killer app” for suborbital space ventures. Branson also has bigger ambitions: orbital launches with LauncherOne, and point-to-point travel with a future SpaceShipThree.
Paul Allen ($17.4 billion) is building upon his legacy as the co-founder of Microsoft through a constellation of high-tech, philanthropic and sports ventures. Space travel is one of his biggest passions: He financed the SpaceShipOne effort, and in his autobiography he said his proudest day came when SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004. (To be fair, “Idea Man” was written before Allen’s Seahawks won the Super Bowl.)
Now Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace is building the world’s biggest airplane for use as a platform for orbital rocket launches. It’s not yet clear who will be Vulcan’s rocket partner – but you’d think Virgin Galactic would at least be in the running, based on the last line in “Idea Man”: “Someone, after all, is going to have to get behind SpaceShipThree.”
Those are the highest-profile billionaires, but there are others. Intentional Software’s Charles Simonyi and Alphabet’s Larry Page are among the backers of Planetary Resources, the Redmond-based asteroid mining company. (Branson’s a backer, too.) Meanwhile, budget-hotel magnate Robert Bigelow is working on space habitats at Bigelow Aerospace. Bigelow’s BEAM prototype module is due to be sent up to the space station on a SpaceX Dragon freighter in February.
If you look beyond the billionaires, there are lots of other ventures in the mix – ranging from the traditional “Four Amigos” of aerospace (Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Orbital ATK) to the newer players (such as XCOR Aerospace and Seattle-based Spaceflight, plus Moon Express and a host of other Google Lunar X Prize teams).
SpaceX and Blue Origin may be in the rocket spotlight now, but hold onto your helmets: This space club is just getting the party started.