Wednesday, August 4

Bezos to space: why the new space race of millionaires is not only about orbital flights for the rich

There is a new space race underway, but it will be very different from the one that the Soviet Union and the United States staged in the 20th century. The personal desire to arrive first has replaced the national desire, and it will also have a significant testosterone component. One of the first stages of that competition is taking place this summer of 2021, with a sting between two millionaires so that his name is the one that is mentioned the most in history books and space documentaries.

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The protagonist of this chapter was to be Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, who scheduled the inaugural space trip of his company Blue Origin for this Tuesday, July 20, at 8 a.m., 1:00 p.m. in Spain. With the world’s largest fortune amassed ($ 177 billion, according to Forbes), Bezos has stepped aside at Amazon to focus on his space project. Among the select group of billionaires exploring the business possibilities of orbital walks, he was the first who dared to step forward and announce that he was going to board one of their test ships.

Then Richard Branson appeared on the scene. This eccentric billionaire (his possessions are estimated at $ 5.9 billion) had been attempting that feat with his company Virgin Galactic for more than 15 years, so he counter-scheduled Bezos to leave nine days early. And he did: on July 11 he mounted one of his aircraft and ascended to 80 kilometers of altitude accompanied by some of his collaborators.

Branson wanted spotlights and he got them. At 71 he is used to them: with his record company Virgin Records he has released albums by the Rolling Stones, Britney Spears or the Spice Girls and is a regular in the media and on television. But his feat has some buts, as the International Space Federation considers the boundary of the atmosphere to be at the Kármán Line, 100 kilometers high, 20 kilometers above what his ship reached Unity 22.

Blue Origin did not hesitate to put its finger on the sore, denying Branson’s self-declaration as the first millionaire to self-finance his trip to space. “Only 4% of the world recognizes the lower limit of 80 km or 50 miles as the beginning of space,” Bezos’s company ugly as Branson and his fellow travelers floated on the Unity 22. Blue Origin presumes that its ship does reach the necessary level.

The experts are with Bezos. “Get up to 80 kilometers high … no, that is not a space trip. That is a plane that flies high,” explains Víctor Rodrigo, founder of the company Crisa (now part of Airbus), one of the pioneers of the Spanish space industry. If you don’t pass the Kármán boundary, you haven’t made a space flight. Among other things because you can continue to control the plane with traditional instruments. From the Kámán limit you need the altitude correction systems, the small rockets that guide the vehicle in space “, he details.

The difference can be seen in both ships. While Virgin Galactic’s is very similar to two planes joined by the wing that carry a third device that they release upon reaching a certain height, Blue Origin’s is a rocket that takes off and lands vertically.

The quarrel between the two billionaires, with a debate on what is space travel and what is not included, has to do with the positioning of their two companies in the incipient business of space tourism. In fact, if the “self-financed” last name is removed, neither Bezos nor Branson are the first billionaires to travel into space. That title was taken by Dennis Tito in 2001, when he paid about 23 million euros to spend a week on the International Space Station, which he arrived at in a Russian Soyuz probe. The ISS orbits 400 km from the earth’s crust.

Virgin Galactic has announced that a seat on its flights will be worth around a quarter of a million dollars. Blue Origin for its part has focused on staging that the outer space is already for everyone with the crew that will embark with Bezos. The Amazon founder will be accompanied by the oldest astronaut (Wally Funk, 82) and the youngest (Oliver Daemen, 18). Also going is Mark Bezos, the tycoon’s brother.

“The entry barriers, especially the aspect of the launchers, are going down. The space is more accessible and that gives a lot of opportunities. Tourism is just one of them,” says Isabel Vera, president of the Institute’s Space Committee of the Engineering of Spain.

The new space race goes beyond tourism

Although Virgin Galactic has been investigating the idea of ​​suborbital flights for tourists the longest, and Branson passed Bezos on the right, the two companies that have their sights much further away from that milestone are Blue Origin and Elon’s SpaceX. Musk. The latter has already committed to making the first private expedition to the Moon, scheduled for 2023.

SpaceX has acquired a all-important NASA contract to design the new lunar landing module for the US space agency in exchange for $ 3 billion. It will be the one used in NASA’s new program to bring astronauts to the satellite in 2024, called Artemis. In that race there was also Blue Origin, along with a third called Dynetics (one of the traditional contractors of the US aerospace sector). The contract ended up taking SpaceX, but Blue Origin took the award to court because the initial plan was to hire two companies to work on their respective projects to later choose the best. Bezos’s company claims that position as second developer.

“Can’t lift it (to orbit) lol”, Musk wrote upon learning of the lawsuit in a tweet that helps define the paths that this new space race is taking.

Beyond testosterone and bar counter double meanings, the conflict shows just how important private capital will be in the new wave of technology aimed at taking human beings off Earth. “All this investment will bring new products and more opportunities. The countries are doing it but accompanied by a more industrial support, also so that the sector that is being generated can export to new countries. it gives feedback, “says Vera.

The other fact is the US leadership in this new space race. “Europe has been far behind. We have only made one launch so far this year. The US has already done 28 and China has 27. Even India has already done more than us,” regrets Víctor Rodrigo, who advises the Commission Europe on how to get private investment back to bet on the European aerospace sector. “We need to develop our own launcher,” he asks.

The Spanish Space Agency

The series of announcements and space flights by American millionaires has coincided with a debate in the Spanish aerospace sector on behalf of the Spanish Space Agency, a proposal by Pedro Duque that has remained in the air after his departure from the Government. The idea, moreover, did not get the best of welcomes.

“We are practically the only Europeans who do not have it,” reveals Vera, president of the Space Committee. “When they made the announcement there were many people who did not see it well, but I think it is a bit of ignorance. It is something that the sector has always asked for, right now there is no administration that acts as the sole interlocutor of the space in Spain, none that coordinates and unifies all the policies and is in charge of designing the long-term strategy, “he laments.

We are one of the few European countries that does not have a Space Agency

Isabel vera
– President of the Space Committee of the Engineering Institute

“You have to take into account that this is a very important industry and that it is already essential for daily life because it offers many basic services such as GPS, earth observation, weather, telecommunications, which has been essential during the pandemic. … “recalls Vera.

That the public powers take positions regarding the new space race will be important, adds the expert, due to the debates that it will open. Space debris, the environmental impact of this industry, the use of space (Elon Musk’s new constellation of satellites has upset many) or the exploitation of resources from outside the Earth are questions that the international community may have to face. Sooner than later.

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