Battling billionaires set for new space race

“Wonderful coincidence”: Branson (right) insists he is not in competition with Bezos (left).

Do they have more money than sense? Today, Richard Branson is making his final preparations for the journey of a lifetime. But is it worth spending billions for a few minutes beyond Earth?

Two of the world’s richest men are preparing for a showdown.

In one corner is Astronaut 001, also known as Richard Branson, with a net worth of £4.2bn. His rocket, VSS Unity, is 60 feet long. His teammates are five of his Virgin Galactic employees and his mission is to see Earth from above – and to evaluate the comfort of the seats.

In the other corner of the ring is Jeff Bezos, net worth £144.5bn, founder of Amazon and Blue Origin spaceflight services company. His team inside the New Shepard rocket include his younger brother, the winner of a £20m charity auction and an 82-year-old woman called Wally Funk.

Who will reach space first?

Things are looking good for Branson. If all goes according to plan, the businessman will take off this Sunday for a thrilling four minutes of weightlessness, beating Bezos by just nine days.

“My mum taught me to never give up and to reach for the stars,” Branson said. “It’s time to turn that dream into a reality.”

But it is not all bad news for Bezos. His lift-off, timed for the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing on 20 July, may be nine days later than Branson’s, but his rocket will go 12 miles higher. “It’s a very different experience,” insists Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith.

Not everyone is excited by the battle of the billionaires. “In a world beset by poverty, hunger and climate change, it really is a great relief to hear that one billionaire has beaten another in the space tourism race,” comedian David Baddiel said sarcastically on Friday.

Each year, Bezos spends up to £720m to finance Blue Origin. And dozens of celebrities, from Angelina Jolie to Justin Bieber, have shelled out £182,000 each for seats on Branson’s SpaceShipTwo rockets.

Indeed, neither man is afraid to make extravagant purchases. Richard Branson is the owner of a £73m private island. And Jeff Bezos once spent £20m building a 500ft clock that ticks once a year and symbolises “long-term thinking”.

But now, both insist that their spending on space travel is about the good of science and humanity, not ego or status.

For some, the motivations of these modern-day explorers simply do not matter. The pyramids of Ancient Egypt, enjoyed by millions around the world today, were tombs for the Pharaohs, but they were probably also symbols of enormous power and prestige.

The controversial 15th-Century explorer Christopher Columbus brought great riches to the Spanish empire when he set foot in America. But he also amassed huge personal wealth and had an agreement that if he discovered new lands, he would be declared Admiral of the Ocean Seas. Today, some historians use the phrase “god, gold and glory” to describe the motives of Europe’s overseas explorers.

Altruism and egotism are the same thing,” says Hannah Kerner of the Space Frontier Foundation. “When people are feeling altruistic, they feel important. The same thing happens when they feel like they’re having an impact on society.”

Do they have more money than sense?

Out of this world

No, say some. The billionaires’ trips to space may be extraordinary and expensive, but that does not mean they are nonsensical. History is filled with explorers and innovators who had a huge impact on society, even if their personal motivations may have been more selfish. Even if Branson is inspired by ego and not a genuine desire to make space accessible, this does not devalue his achievements.

Definitely, say others. Jeff Bezos could build ten US hospitals a year with the money he spends on Blue Origin. It is ridiculous to spend so much money on just a few minutes at the edge of space. Branson and Bezos could follow the lead of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and spend billions to help eradicate malaria, improve sanitation and fight Covid-19. Instead, they are massaging their egos.

You Decide

  1. Do billionaires have a responsibility to help solve the world’s problems?
  2. Are altruism and egotism the same thing?

Activities

  1. In pairs, design an advert for your own space tourism company. How will your leaflet or short video convince travellers to swap the beach for zero gravity?
  2. In small groups, come up with an alternative proposal for how Jeff Bezos could use the £720m he spends on space tourism every year. Then, hold a class vote on which group has the best suggestion.

Some People Say...

“Only via continuing to probe every nook and cranny of the universe that is accessible to us will we truly build a useful appreciation of our own place in the cosmos.”

Lawrence M Kraus (1954 - ), American-Canadian physicist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that while space exploration was once the preserve of publicly funded government organisations, privately backed space research is increasingly taking over. In the 1950s and 1960s, competition between Russia and the US fuelled the first space race. But in 2021, US space agency NASA awarded a £2.1bn contract to Elon Musk’s SpaceX to take astronauts to the surface of the moon. And in 2020, a Chinese company launched a commercial rocket into space for only the second time.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds whether billionaires should use their money to solve problems like climate change. Last year, Jeff Bezos set up the Earth Fund, a £7.27bn philanthropic initiative to fund scientists and NGOs. But critics say that billionaires often fund charities related to their personal interests, rather than the most useful organisations. Moreover, Bezos’s fortune comes from his company Amazon, which has annual carbon dioxide emissions roughly equivalent to Norway.

Word Watch

Richard Branson
English entrepreneur Branson, 70, founded the Virgin Group, which includes airline Virgin Atlantic.
Wally Funk
Funk trained as an astronaut in the 1960s but was denied a place on a launch due to her gender.
Take off
Branson’s rocket is carried to 45,000 feet by a mother plane. Bezos’s will launch directly from the ground.
Higher
Bezos’s rocket will reach the Kármán line, which some experts say is the true beginning of space.
Pharaohs
The monarchs of ancient Egypt were both heads of state and religious leaders.
Christopher Columbus
Columbus undoubtedly created a bridge between Europe and the Americas. But, he also enslaved indigenous peoples.
Altruism
Selfless concern for the wellbeing of others.
Space Frontier Foundation
A non-profit organisation that promotes human settlement in space.
Malaria
More than 400,000 people die each year from the mosquito-borne disease.

Subjects

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