- Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson all have ventures dedicated to space travel.
- Each billionaire has his own vision for humanity’s future in space.
- Branson on Sunday launched to the edge of space, becoming the first of the three to do so.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
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.
Richard Branson, whose Virgin Group dabbles in everything from airlines to healthcare, launched a commercial-spaceflight company of his own called Virgin Galactic. On Sunday, he launched 87km above the the Earth’s surface aboard 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.
He pledged $20 million to fund the mission – and attempted to purchase some refurbished intercontinental ballistic missiles from Russia to no avail – but discovered that the project was way out of his budget. He founded SpaceX to develop reusable rockets that would lower the cost of blasting people and things into space.
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, 117.96m-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 that is eventually meant to take paying tourists to the edge of space in a pressurized capsule. Passengers would be able to catch a glimpse of Earth through large windows and experience a few minutes of weightlessness.
In May, Blue Origin announced that the first flight would take place July 20 and that the first seat would be auctioned off for charity. The bidding for that ticket has reached $3 million, and Bezos said in June that he and his brother, Mark, would take part in the flight.
“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 91,440.00m.
The company completed its first fully-crewed flight to the edge of space on Sunday, launching its founder and others more than 80km 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.