Three Billionaires Are Racing to Space. Who Will Win?

Elon Musk is eyeing Mars, Jeff Bezos aims for the moon, Richard Branson is all about space tourism. Some say they should save Earth first.

They’re all ridiculously rich, they’re all men, and now they all have their sights set on the stars. Elon Musk wants to fly to Mars. Jeff Bezos, of Amazon, dreams of putting a colony on the moon. And Richard Branson wants to offer luxury space tourism under the Virgin banner.

What motivates these men? And shouldn’t they be spending their billions to make this planet a better place? Speaking from his home in Washington, D.C., Christian Davenport, author of The Space Barons, reveals the intense competition that animates these billionaires; discusses their different visions for exploring the cosmos; and explains why women are still so underrepresented in space.

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Two of the billionaires at the heart of your book, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, couldn’t be more different in character or in their approaches to space exploration. Take us inside their personalities and plans.

They’re very different. Elon Musk is a marketing genius who gets a lot of attention from the media, a lot of it self-generated. By contrast, Bezos is much quieter and more clandestine. His project, Blue Origin, has been secretive for many years. Most people don’t realize it’s been around since 2000 and that’s precisely how Bezos wants it.

Elon has come out of the gate very early and tried to get a lot of attention. In 2003, he took a mock-up of his Falcon One rocket and paraded it down on the National Mall in Washington to try to get the attention of NASA. From the beginning, he was out trying to get attention and move very quickly with his company. Bezos’s motto is, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” He’s content to be very deliberate and patient, and take his time to work through the steps methodically, out of the limelight and public eye.

One of the drivers for these space barons is a belief that the Earth is headed for extinction, so they want their own, private stairway to heaven. Shouldn’t they, like Bill Gates, be putting their billions into making this planet better?

That’s a great question. Elon Musk in particular has said that if something should happen to Earth, if there was some extinction event, like an asteroid hit the Earth, or humanity was to go the way of the dinosaurs, we should have a backup plan, like putting humanity on Mars, backing up the human race the way you back up your computer on a hard drive.

Jeff Bezos thinks about it a little differently. He says that Plan B should be to make sure that Plan A works; that Earth should be preserved and protected. The way to do that is to go to space because Earth has limited resources—there’s only so much coal and fuel and gas—but space has unlimited resources.

But I think it’s worth debating: is space the best use of their funds? Their motivations are varied. There’s this motivation to do something better for humanity, there are economic motivations, there’s the rivalry between them, then there’s this simple goal that they just want to go to space as an adventure.

The third space baron once signed the Sex Pistols to his record label and has the motto, “Screw it, let’s do it.” Tell us about Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic program.

Branson has done all sorts of crazy adventures. He flew a balloon across the Pacific, as part of marketing his global Virgin brand, with the idea to land in Southern California, but they crashed into a frozen lake in Canada. Another time, he tried to cross the Atlantic from Maine to the U.K., but his pilot ended up bailing out, leaving Richard all by himself to bring the thing down.

Virgin Galactic wants to take tours flying to the edge of space in a cool-looking, sexy spacecraft called Spaceship 2, tethered to a mother ship. It would fly to about 35,000-40,000 feet, the pilots would ignite the engines, and off you would go, shooting into space. Tickets cost about $250,000, but the idea is that eventually the cost of the ticket would go down so that you could start getting regular people going up into space. You would unbuckle from your seatbelt and float around the cabin, look out the window, see the curvature of the Earth—that transformative view that astronauts have been talking about for decades.

But it’s not come as quickly or as easily as Branson thought. It’s had multiple setbacks and delays, including a fatal crash in 2014, which killed one of the pilots. But Virgin Galactic has continued to press on with their program and we could see the first flights start as soon as this year.

A space rocket is, of course, the ultimate phallic symbol. And reading your book I couldn’t help feeling that, ultimately, this is like a schoolyard bragging contest for rich men: “Mine is bigger than yours!” Or am I being facile?

Competition is key to this. It’s what got us to the moon in the Apollo era, going up against the Soviet Union. NASA at the time got a lot of funding, but was essentially an adjunct of the Pentagon and the space race was in some ways a military program. Since then, we have been sending astronauts to the International Space Station, but that’s only 250 miles away. It’s an amazing engineered object, but it’s not as ambitious as going to the moon.

What these billionaires have done is inject competition back into the space industry and created a new space race. At times, it’s gotten tense between them. There have been lawsuits, harsh words on Twitter, and a lot of back and forth. But ultimately, I think they realize that they need each other, that competition is good. It will make them more efficient, safer, and more innovative.

There is definitely something about having a big rocket. They obviously have huge egos and ambitions, and there’s no bigger ambition than space. It’s such a challenge; it requires not just an immense amount of resources, but guts and courage, because the chances of failure are so high.

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Only two women get (even fleeting) mentions in your book. One of them, Eva Branson, sounds like quite a lady. Tell us about her—and why space is such a boys-only club.

Eva Branson is Richard’s mother. He’s told me he gets a lot of his spirit from her. She wanted to help the effort in WWII and signed up to be a glider pilot instructor and had to pretend to be a man to do that. After Spaceship 2 crashed, and Richard came back out, wanting to press on and unveil the new spacecraft, she was there at his side. She is a great influence on Richard.

Why is it a boys’ club? In the billionaires’ club, it certainly is. In terms of NASA, things are starting to change a little bit. Space-X and Boeing are getting ready to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. NASA’s already picked the four astronauts, who are the best of the best, and one of them is a woman. But you’re right. Not just space, but aerospace generally, is dominated by men and always has been. But there are real efforts within the industry to try to promote women. Space-X President Gwynne Shotwell is the number two person at the company and a lot of people credit her for Space-X’s success. She and Lori Garver, former deputy administrator at NASA, have been huge advocates for women in space.

In the wake of the Facebook election scandal, there is a lively debate about who should control the Internet. Don’t we need the same debate about—and perhaps regulation of—space, so that it doesn't become the playground of a group of wealthy men?

Right now, for flying individuals, it’s based on informed consent. But beyond human spaceflight, one of the concerns is that space is becoming crowded. There’s already a lot of debris up there. Now, some of these companies are talking about putting up hundreds of satellites, and there isn’t a clear regime that has control. Who plays the role of space traffic cop?

The government is trying to deal with all these questions, but the technology is moving so fast that it’s outpacing the regulation. A couple of years ago Congress started to get involved. It passed a law that U.S. companies, should they go out into space and, say, mine asteroids, would have the rights to whatever they take off the surface. How that plays out in an international arena is untested. Nobody’s done this yet. But it is something the international space community is focused on.

Bezos wants to build a colony on the moon. Musk is shooting for Mars. Who’s going to get there first? Will the tortoise beat the hare? Or will Branson pip them at the post?

Between Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, you’ve got a race to fly paying tourists to the edge of space on suborbital trips. It’s unclear which is going to go first. Both are aiming for as early as this year. Elon and Space X are in a race with Boeing to fly a crew to the International Space Station. Bezos is building a massive new rocket called New Glenn, which will challenge Space X’s Falcon 9.

As to who’s going to win, I don’t know. Elon gets a lot of attention and is far ahead of everybody else. They have billions of dollars of revenue from flying commercial missions for the Pentagon and NASA. They’ve flown the Falcon Heavy, a massive new rocket that put a Tesla into space, and Elon is talking big about going to Mars.

Jeff embraces the role of the tortoise, being quiet and secretive, plodding along carefully, step by step, but ferociously, as he says. He hasn’t got nearly as much attention, but I wouldn’t count him out. He’s very passionate and serious about space and when that New Glenn rocket flies, Space X is going to have real competition on its hands.

Branson wants to do suborbital tourist flights, which fit more into his brand of recreation and entertainment. His goal one day is also to do what’s known as point-to-point transportation, where you go from New York to Tokyo within a couple of hours. The spaceship takes you up out of the atmosphere; you go incredibly fast, then re-enter and land. But I don’t know if his ambitions extend, in terms of human spaceflight, to the moon or to Mars.

If you were a betting man, who would you put your money on?

It’s hard to pick just one. Elon’s got a track record of success; Jeff has got so much money you can’t count him out. Virgin Galactic had a huge setback, but seems to have learned from it and is making progress. So, at this point, it’s hard to say. They all have the ambition and the drive and, just as importantly, they have the money.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.