Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson each took supersonic pleasure rides to the edge of space, eventually deploying their competing private sector spacecraft after about two decades of promise. Celebrities such as 90-year-old “Star Trek” actor William Shatner and “Good Morning America” co-host Michael Strahan followed shortly after. Another billionaire himself funded a historic three-day mission aboard a SpaceX orbital capsule that flew higher than any human has traveled in decades.
And all that promises to be just the beginning.
The trio of space billionaires – Branson, Bezos and Elon Musk – have their eyes fully set on the future. Over the past year, their views continued to clash, leading to much controversy and one-sidedness.
Here’s a look back at some of the most memorable moments the commercial space industry has had to offer over the past year.
Branson v. Bezos
Branson and Bezos’ space companies have been developing spacecraft that can take paying customers on short, supersonic journeys to the edge of space for years, promising to usher in an era where booking a flight around Earth from space to view is as easy as flying over the Atlantic. (It should be noted that Musk’s SpaceX is not in the suborbital tourism game. Its rockets and spacecraft take much longer and more dangerous trips into Earth’s orbit.)
We’re not quite there yet. But both billionaires pledged to kick-start their respective sub-orbital space tourism business by taking the rides themselves, as well as a testament to their confidence in the safety of their vehicles and some strategic PR.
Bezos, founder of the rocket company Blue Origin, set out to become the first person ever to travel to space aboard a spacecraft developed by his own company, setting his sights on a July 20 launch. (Blue Origin even auctioned off a ticket to ride alongside him for a whopping $28 million, though that auction winner ultimately didn’t fly.)
Then Branson dove in and announced days later that he planned to jump on the next flight of the rocket-powered spaceplane developed by his company Virgin Galactic on July 11 — nine days before Bezos’ mission.
That immediately sparked a wave of speculation that – although Branson has repeatedly said in interviews that he doesn’t see his competition with Bezos as a “race” – a bitter rivalry is brewing behind the scenes.
Both billionaires’ flights ended without apparent problem, with the men emerging from their respective spacecraft in custom flight suits and beaming at the cameras.
In addition to the spectacle, both flights also carried some notable crew members for the billionaires.
Bezos was joined by 82-year-old Wally Funk, who was famous for NASA’s Mercury program in 1961 but never went to space, and then 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, the son of a wealthy businessman. The pair became the oldest and youngest people to ever travel to space, respectively. (Funk’s record was beaten by 90-year-old William Shatner shortly after.)
Branson took Sirisha Bandla, director of Virgin Galactic, who became only the second Indian-born woman to fly to space and back.
Shaping suborbital space
The successful launch of Bezos in July saw the company in a busy rest of the year flying some high profile figures as ‘guests of honor’ – meaning they didn’t have to pay for tickets. Shatner took his suborbital excursion in October, a feat widely celebrated by “Star Trek” fans that was followed by an Amazon in-flight video special. Michael Strahan and Laura Shepard Churchley, daughter of famed astronaut Alan Shepard, flew in December.
While Blue Origin sent celebrities into space, Virgin Galactic faced significant delays. A New Yorker report revealed that during Branson’s flight, warning lights in the cockpit had gone off and the spaceplane had traveled 41 seconds outside its designated airspace. The Federal Aviation Administration grounded all flights pending a review, which was completed in September and approved Virgin Galactic. Still, the company is delaying the start of commercial services, citing unrelated technology upgrades.
Blue Origin, meanwhile, has faced its own controversies, but none have identified specific security concerns with its rocket or spacecraft.
Rather, a group of 21 current and former employees co-signed a letter claiming the company has a toxic work environment where “professional dissent” is “actively suppressed.” Blue Origin responded to the claims by saying it has “no tolerance whatsoever for discrimination or harassment of any kind”.
Inspiration4 flies higher
While Musk has no clear plans to participate in any of SpaceX’s missions, his company continued to prove his technological prowess. It dramatically expanded its space-based internet service, Starlink, expanding the constellation to about 2,000 satellites. Its Dragon spacecraft has also launched and returned astronauts to and from the International Space Station this year, and it has topped the competition for billionaire space tourism with a historic space tourism mission of its own.
SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission, self-funded by the CEO of billionaire payments platform Jared Isaacman, sent Isaacman and three other people, none of whom were professional astronauts, on a three-day journey to orbit even higher than the International Space Station — higher than no other man has traveled this century.
The passengers floated around the capsule, playing songs, creating artwork and maintaining contact with ground controls as their 13-foot-wide capsule circled the planet once every 90 minutes, traveling at more than 27,500 miles per hour.
The mission was to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Hospital, a cause to which Isaacman donated $125 million and a public fundraiser raised more than $118 million. Musk pledged to donate $50 million.
The whole thing went (almost) flawlessly.
Still, all the news about billionaires in space generated a lot of backlash, including from high-profile figures such as the United Nations Secretary-General and Prince William.
A “disease is spreading in our world today: an ailment of mistrust,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in September, adding that “billionaires are joyriding to space while millions are starving on Earth”.
Bezos vs Musk
Against the backdrop of all the space tourism hype, a tense battle played out between the two richest people on Earth.
Bezos and Musk each want to put their own company at the heart of NASA’s plans to return astronauts to the moon this decade. But after NASA initially planned to hire more than one contractor to build the lunar lander for the job, NASA later said it only had enough money for one — and it went with Musk’s SpaceX. It awarded the company $2.9 billion.
Blue Origin fought that decision all year, saying NASA was unfairly favoring SpaceX. Meanwhile, the PR offensives and twitter fights
But a federal judge dealt a major blow to Blue Origin in November by ruling in favor of NASA and SpaceX. That called into question the future of Bezos’ company’s plans to build a lunar lander.
The ordeal highlighted how important government contracts are to the viability of the commercial space industry. Although these companies are private, their revenue streams still rely heavily on taxpayers’ money.
And the battle for NASA’s lunar lander contract sparked what is sure to be more high-profile battles and an interesting few years ahead as NASA and its contractors plot a path back to the lunar surface for the first time in half a century.