2021 — A Space Odyssey

2021 — A Space Odyssey

The billionaire space-race is well and truly on – and is, almost definitely, a two-horse race.

Imagine you’re a time traveller travelling through the very fabric of space and time. You reach a distant age into the future where you expect to see flying cars, floating cities, and teleporting robots. But, instead, you reach an age where billionaires are racing each other to space in their own personal rockets amidst the most severe global health pandemic recorded in modern times. If these events sound even vaguely similar to anything you’ve seen, then I welcome you to the year 2021.

That the global space race is well and truly underway should not, thus, come as a surprise to many. Humans have been obsessed with space for the good part of seven decades now – especially since we managed to send the Russian dog, Laika, up to space back in 1957. Though Laika didn’t really take the trip very well (RIP Laika), throngs of people since then very well have – the most recent addition being billionaire Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos just this past week.

Consider this beautiful analogy from The Scotsman. If anything sums up our intrigue with the beyond, it is this.

“If one image could sum up the general tone of how TV and film depicts this era of astral activity, it would probably be that of a neat family unit, sitting in front of their TV, marvelling at pictures of rockets launching and men on the moon. Cap off the scene with a close up of Little Johnny’s awe-struck face, planets reflected in his eyes.

Elsewhere, bar patrons cheer, printing presses go like the clappers to get out historic front covers.”

Space Race — the Cold War Edition

The term ‘Space Race’ was first used to refer to the historic battle through the mid-to-late twentieth century between the two Cold War adversaries – the United States, and the (former) Soviet Union (USSR). The rivalry between these two superpowers rose to an epic battle in technological supremacy that would eventually allow them both to rule the realms of spaceflight, weaving through the origins of the ongoing ballistic-missile-nuclear-arms race and the ever-growing ‘need’ for strengthening their respective nuclear arsenal.

While the Soviets championed cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin to become the first man to break the realm of space a little over 60 years ago, the Americans became the first to send a man to the moon, Neil Armstrong, back in 1969. About half a century has passed, however, since these two brought their race for spatial supremacy to a formal close through a period of détente, marked famously by the co-operative Apollo–Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) of 1972, and formally ending the race in 1975.

Let’s call that the Space Race-I. Now for billionaires racing each other to space in 2021.

Space Race-II — the 2021 Billionaire Edition

Jeff Bezos, the most recent to break the space barrier on the back of technology developed by his firm Blue Origin, carried out a 10-minute passenger flight aboard the ‘New Shepard’ on the 20th of July – a date that would mark the 52nd anniversary of the historic moon landing by Apollo 11.

A little over a week prior to Bezos, however, the US-defined space barrier was broken by fellow CEO Richard Branson aboard his Virgin Galactic spaceplane, the VSS Unity. The July 11fully-crewed space flight featuring the company’s billionaire owner, Branson, travelled about 86km (53 miles) above sea level — undoubtedly a major leap towards the regularisation of commercial suborbital spaceflight. Branson’s firm now plans to launch about 400 space flights a year, with each individual ticket priced a little north of a quarter-of-a-million US dollars.

The fact that Branson was able to beat Bezos to space, however, was an event slickly marketed by Virgin Galactic for its publicity edge, and elicited a rather sour response from Bezos’ space company, which instead alluded to the ‘higher standard’ they set for themselves.

Why this talk of ‘higher standard’, you ask? Well, that’s because the accepted international space boundary, called the Kármán line, is at an altitude of about 100km (or 62 miles); while the American space-demarcation altitude, on the other hand, is at about 80km (or 50 miles). The difference of distance traversed between the two — about 20 km (12 miles) — has been referred to as a ‘higher standard’ by his Blue Origin-billionaire counterpart.

Consider this excerpt from an opinion column of the Financial Times, which brilliantly sums up the situation with a liberal dose of satire:

“Imagine you’re among the very first tourists to board a rocket, shoot up to the fringes of space, and see the Earth from 86 kilometres. Then you come down, and discover that no one cares.

This is presumably the experience of Richard Branson, billionaire founder of Virgin Galactic. Some people think Branson is a self-publicist, but given that he timed his historic launch on Sunday to clash with the Euros final and the Wimbledon men’s final, they may be overestimating.

Brits would have lacked interest anyway. Branson has overpromised too often. Going to space can’t be that hard if the guy who messed up the trains from London to Liverpool has become a pioneer.”

This perception is perhaps the chief reason why the ‘real’ billionaire space race doesn’t really feature Branson. The marquee main event: Jeff Bezos v Elon Musk.

Image Source: Financial Times

The ‘Real’ Billionaire Space Race?

Elon Reeve Musk, born 28th June 1971, has been set to rule the realms of space for rather long now. When he set up SpaceX in 2002, the objective was simple — increasing accessibility to space by reducing transportation costs to allow for the colonisation of Mars. That today, SpaceX is already considered volumes ahead of its competition, is simply testimony to the fact earlier stated. Consider this excerpt from Financial Times:

What Elon is doing is on the order of 50 times more difficult” than Blue Origin’s trip this week, said Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize, which helped to kickstart the commercial space industry more than two decades ago.

SpaceX has for long been considered far ahead of its competitors, having already: (i) received NASA contracts to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) in 2012; (ii) flown astronauts to the ISS in 2020 and (iii) aimed to shoot commercial space trips around the moon by 2023. About six years ago, Blue Origin seemed to overtake SpaceX in one exclusive aspect – pulling off a successful landing and then reusing the same rocket. Since then, honestly, it’s all been Musk. Bezos, on the other hand, has been, and quite visibly so — slower.

Greg Autry, former White House liaison to NASA, believes Blue Origin’s protracted path is due to a much more ‘planned and careful’ approach, as opposed to the ‘seat-of-the-pants’ style adopted by SpaceX. Though Bezos’ methods have resulted in a highly reliable space programme, Musk’s eclectic hard-driving leadership has managed to break the ‘traditional’ aerospace industry much sooner. There have been benefits to the Blue Origin approach too – such as the capability of using difficult-to-handle liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to power rockets; something that will be much more suitable to more ambitious future launches.

As for SpaceX’s future aspirations. granted, that projects such as manning stations on Mars (or the moon) can be rather enthralling to the public eye owing to the perceived elusiveness, the cost involvement, most experts agree, will just not make them worth it. Colonising parts of Siberia or Canada would be simpler and considerably cheaper, CNN columnist Don Lincoln opines. Commercial space flight, however, is a different story and honestly, much more achievable (and affordable?).

Recommended Op-Ed: https://on.ft.com/3B5RM0d

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