The competition between businesspeople who transitioned from other industries, mostly computing, to the space industry is known as the “billionaire space race.” Sending independently designed rockets and spacecraft to different locations in space is part of this race for private spaceflight, which is frequently initiated in reaction to government initiatives or to grow the space tourism industry.
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Three billionaires and their corresponding companies are the main competitors in today’s billionaire space race:
Blue Origin, owned by Jeff Bezos, aims to build an industrial base in space.
The Virgin Group, led by Richard Branson, aims to dominate transcontinental suborbital spaceflight, tiny orbital launch vehicles at a reasonable cost, and space tourism.
Through its Starlink initiative, Elon Musk’s SpaceX aims to both inhabit Mars and offer satellite-based internet.
Before his passing in 2018, Paul Allen had a significant role in the billionaire space race via his company Vulcan’s aerospace business and his funding of initiatives like Scaled Composites Tier One. Allen aimed to bring down the price of sending payloads into space.
It is possible to argue that American entrepreneur Peter Diamandis set the foundation for both the private spaceflight industry and the billionaire space race. He established the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), a national student space society in the United States, in the 1980s. Jeff Bezos later rose to the position of SEDS chapter president. Disappointed with the status of space development in the 1990s, Diamandis made the decision to launch the X Prize in order to accelerate space exploration and create a suborbital space tourism industry. This prompted Paul Allen to enter the race and develop SpaceShipOne and White Knight One, the Scaled Composites Tier One platforms that took home the 2004 Ansari X-Prize. Virgin Group, owned by Richard Branson, then licensed the winning entry’s technology to create Virgin Galactic. Stratolaunch Systems, previously of Vulcan Aerospace, is also built around the foundational methods of Tier One. Elon Musk founded SpaceX, the last of the three major competitors, in 2002. Elon Musk has stated that he is eager for a fresh space competition.
The billionaire space race has also been fueled by government initiatives. NASA’s multibillion dollar procurement programs, like the Commercial Crew Program (established in 2010; SpaceX won most of the grants, with Blue Origin receiving a portion as well) and the Artemis HLS program (awarded to SpaceX in 2021 and to Blue Origin in 2023), have forced the billionaires to compete with one another for selection. In addition, the competition has given rise to legal disputes like Blue Origin v. United States & SpaceX. These government initiatives have contributed significantly to the funding of the nascent private space sector.