We are in the midst of a space race in the modern age. Where the two most powerful empires on the planet competed to be the first to land on the moon, we now have companies led by billionaire barons – Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic – that boast a future filled with off-planet tourism. In 2021, the heads of these private companies finally made good on their countless promises, successfully launching civilians, astronauts, and, in two cases, themselves into the highest regions of Earth’s atmosphere.
SpaceX continues to lead the burgeoning private spaceflight industry from the front. In January, the company successfully launched its first “rideshare mission” aboard its Falcon 9 rocket, bringing 133 small satellites into orbit along with 10 of its Starlink satellites. SpaceX’s Starlink ISP, which now serves more than 10,000 customers, has put about 1,475 small satellites into orbit above the planet (a total of 42,000 planned, offering global coverage by September), despite fierce protests from astronomers who fear their presence will Blinding ground telescopes.
SpaceX’s endeavors to launch the Starship prototype to Earth have not been nearly as successful as Starlink, consider. The 100-passenger spacecraft, which was designed to help realize CEO Elon Musk’s dream of colonizing Mars and is supposed to call himself the Divine Emperor of the Red Planet (or similar), exploded spectacularly on the launch pad after a high-altitude test flight in March.
The SN10 was low on thrust due to (possibly) a partial ingestion of helium from the fuel head tank. Impact of 10 m/s from smashed legs and part of the skirt. Multiple fixes at work for SN11.
– Elon Musk March 9, 2021
Subsequent testing of the SN11 Starship prototype later that month did not return to the landing pad. SN15, launched in May, managed to land in one piece. The company is currently working on a plan to launch a Starship prototype into orbit, though there’s no current timeline for that launch – it was originally scheduled for July and then pushed back to November, depending on regulatory approval, and is now set for January.
But those failed tests did little to slow SpaceX’s coup against its rivals. In February, NASA awarded SpaceX a $331.8 million contract to get its Gateway station into lunar orbit in 2024. And in April, NASA awarded the company a $2.9 billion contract to transport the Artemis lunar lander to the Moon.
Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin responded to Artemis’ contract by first protesting the “fundamentally unfair” decision with the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), which delayed progress on the project until July when the GAO rejected the claims, although Bezos offered to NASA $2 billion to give them the contract instead.
“We stand firm in our belief that there were fundamental issues with NASA’s decision, but the GAO was unable to address them due to its limited jurisdiction,” the company said after the GAO’s announcement.
Bezos still irritated by the GAO’s rebuke, then sued NASA in Federal Claims Court, essentially trying to “sue” [its] Road to the Moon” per catch. Blue Origin claimed this was done “in an attempt to fix flaws in the acquisition that were found in NASA’s human landing system,” a Blue Origin spokesperson told Engadget in August. “We believe firmly that the issues identified with these purchases and their outcome must be addressed to restore fairness, create competition, and ensure a safe return to the Moon for America.” Blue Origin eventually lost that lawsuit, too.
That’s when a competition for prestige between the two richest men on Earth turned into a middle school slap fight with SpaceX accusing Amazon of deliberately delaying Starlink service proposals while Amazon hit back with accusations that Musk and SpaceX were “not following the rules.”
“Whether it is launching satellites with unauthorized antennas, launching missiles without consent, building an unauthorized launch tower, or reopening a factory in violation of a protection order in place, the behavior of SpaceX and other companies led by Musk see clearly: the rules intended for other people, and those who insist on compliance or even simply demand it deserve ridicule and ad hominem attacks,” Amazon’s FCC filing reads.
This year, SpaceX not only became the first private company to successfully fly astronauts to the International Space Station, it also delivered the first civilian orbital flight with the launch of the Inspiration 4 mission in September. A quartet of amateur astronauts spent three days orbiting Earth in the Dragon capsule before returning safely. And while Musk has yet to leave the planet’s atmosphere aboard a rocket designed by his company, he has reportedly made a down payment of $10,000 for a flight on a future Virgin Galactic flight.
One of the points Bezos has on his belt that Musk does not have is the fact that he has in fact flown on his own spacecraft. After successful test flights for Blue Origin’s upgraded New Shepard in January and April, Jeff Bezos and his brother — along with 18-year-old Oliver Damon (whose parents spent $28 million on the honor) and 18-year-old Wally Funk — have succeeded. 84 years old – she successfully crossed the Kerman Line on July 20. Blue Origin followed up on this feat in October when it flew William Shatner, of Star Trek fame, into space. During that flight, Shatner, now 90, toppled 84-year-old Funk as the oldest person to go into space. A way to snatch the last highlights from the life of an old woman, Captain Kirk.
Looking to the future, Blue Origin is working on a spacecraft capable of handling Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) for DARPA – and competing with Lockheed Martin to successfully prove it beyond low Earth orbit in 2025. The company also announced at the end of October that it hopes to build and deploy a commercial satellite station called Orbital Reef — think, ISS but with more intrusive advertising — by the second half of this decade. Since then, NASA has awarded the project a Space Act Agreement, along with funding during the design phase, as part of its commercial program to develop low Earth orbit.
On the other hand, Virgin Galactic started its operation in 2021 with a consistent pattern. Testing of the company’s SpaceShip II at the end of last December – its first major flight from Spaceport America in New Mexico – ended abruptly after the ship’s engine failed to ignite. A subsequent re-test scheduled for February was also postponed to May after the company opted to conduct additional “technical checks”.
While these aren’t major setbacks in the same vein as the StarShip explosion, VG’s continued delays have pushed back the company’s goal of commercial space tourism flights to at least 2022. However, it did not affect Virgin Galactic’s unveiling of SpaceShip III in March.
In May, VG’s perseverance paid off when SpaceShip II successfully completed its rocket-powered test flight, driving a pair of pilots and a payload full of NASA experiments to the very upper reaches of the atmosphere. The following month, Virgin Galactic received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to begin commercial operations, becoming the first such company to receive permission from the airline industry. With the FAA’s blessing in full force, Virgin Galactic decided to launch CEO Sir Richard Branson into space – unconcerned with the irony of Blue Origin – the following month. On July 11, Branson and his crew did just that — well, technically speaking.
Buoyed by the success of its chief’s flight, Virgin Galactic has begun offering tickets to potential space tourists at a low and low discounted price of $450,000. As of the beginning of November, over 100 tickets have been sold.
Branson’s flight was not without flaws, much to the chagrin of the FAA. During the landing of SpaceShip II, the spacecraft deviated from the air traffic control clearance upon returning to Spaceport America, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In a later statement from the company, Virgin disagreed with the FAA’s characterization.
“When the vehicle encountered very high winds that changed its course, pilots and systems monitored the course to ensure it remained within mission parameters,” the company said. “Our pilots responded appropriately to these changing flight conditions exactly as they were trained and in full accordance with our established procedures. Although the final flight path deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and deliberate path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely in port Our space is in New Mexico. At no time have the passengers and crew been exposed to any danger as a result of this change of course.” A brief Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) investigation eventually led to the company’s acquittal to resume test flights.
Despite these advances in private spaceflight systems, don’t expect the space tourism industry to take off before at least the beginning of the next decade. If the recent hike in Virgin Galactic prices from $250,000 to $450,000 per ticket is any indication, very few people will be able to afford such a trip for the foreseeable future. So while two of the world’s richest men have had the honor of temporarily escaping our attraction for good, don’t think you’ll get your chance anytime soon – unless you manage to win it like a golden ticket like Keisha S.
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