We’re in the midst of a modern day space race. Where once the two most powerful empires on the planet vied to be first to the moon, we now have corporations led by billionaire barons — Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic — boasting a future filled with exo-planetary tourism. In 2021, the heads of these private companies finally made good on their myriad promises, successfully launching civilians, astronauts and, in two cases, themselves into the uppermost reaches 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, ferrying 133 microsatellites into orbit along with 10 of its own Starlink satellites. SpaceX’s Starlink ISP service, which now serves more than 10,000 customers, has put some 1,475 of the microsats into orbit above the planet (with a total of 42,000 planned, offering global coverage by September), despite the vehement protests of astronomers who fear their presence will blind ground-based telescopes.
SpaceX’s endeavors to get its Starship prototype off the ground have not been nearly as successful as Starlink, mind you. The 100-passenger spacecraft, which was designed to help fulfill CEO Elon Musk’s dream of colonizing Mars and, presumably, titling himself God Emperor of the Red Planet (or some such), spectacularly exploded on the launchpad following a high-altitude test flight in March.
SN10 engine was low on thrust due (probably) to partial helium ingestion from fuel header tank. Impact of 10m/s crushed legs & part of skirt. Multiple fixes in work for SN11.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 9, 2021
A subsequent test of the SN11 Starship prototype later that month didn’t even get back to the landing pad. SN15, which launched in May, did however manage to land in one piece. The company is currently working on a plan to launch a Starship prototype into orbit, though no timetable is currently set for that launch — it was originally slated for July then pushed back to November, depending on regulatory approval, and is now set for January.
But those failed tests have done little to slow SpaceX’s roll over its competition. In February, NASA awarded SpaceX with a $331.8 million contract to bring its Gateway station into lunar orbit in 2024. And in April, NASA gave the company a $2.9 billion contract to ferry its Artemis lunar lander to the moon.
Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin responded to the 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 dismissed the claims, even though Bezos offered NASA $2 billion to grant them the contract instead.
"We stand firm in our belief that there were fundamental issues with NASA's decision, but the GAO wasn't able to address them due to their limited jurisdiction," the company said following the GAO’s announcement.
Still seething from the GAO’s rebuke, Bezos then filed suit against NASA in Federal Claims court, essentially trying to “sue [its] way to the moon,” per Musk. Blue Origin claimed this was done "in an attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA's Human Landing System," a spokesperson for Blue Origin told Engadget in August. "We firmly believe that the issues identified in this procurement and its outcomes must be addressed to restore fairness, create competition, and ensure a safe return to the Moon for America." Blue Origin eventually lost that lawsuit as well.
And that’s when a prestige competition between the two richest men on Earth devolved into a middle school slap fight with SpaceX accusing Amazon of intentionally delaying proposals for its Starlink service while Amazon countered with incriminations that Musk and SpaceX “don’t follow the rules.”
“Whether it is launching satellites with unlicensed antennas, launching rockets without approval, building an unapproved launch tower, or re-opening a factory in violation of a shelter-in-place order, the conduct of SpaceX and other Musk-led companies makes their view plain: rules are for other people, and those who insist upon or even simply request compliance are deserving of derision and ad hominem attacks,” Amazon’s FCC filing reads.
This year, not only did SpaceX become the first private company to successfully transport astronauts to the ISS, it also offered its first orbital flight for civilians with the launch of the Inspiration4 mission in September. A quartet of amatuer astronauts spent three days circling the Earth in a Dragon Capsule before safely returning. And while Musk has not yet left the planet’s atmosphere aboard a rocket of his company’s design, he has reportedly made a $10,000 down payment on a trip aboard a future Virgin Galactic flight.
One notch Bezos has on his belt that Musk does not is the fact that he has, in fact, flown aboard his own spacecraft. Following successful test flights of Blue Origin’s upgraded New Shepard in both January and April, Jeff Bezos and his brother — along with 18-year old Oliver Daemen (whose parents spent $28 million for the honor) and 84-year-old Wally Funk — successfully traversed the Karman line on July 20th. Blue Origin followed up that feat in October when it shuttled William Shatner, of Star Trek fame, into space. During that flight, Shatner, who is 90, unseated 84-year-old Funk as the oldest person to go to space. Way to snatch the last few highlights from an old woman’s life, Captain Kirk.
Looking ahead, Blue Origin is working on a spacecraft capable of handling a Nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system for DARPA — and competing against Lockheed Martin to successfully demonstrate it outside of low Earth orbit in 2025. The company also announced at the end of October that it hopes to build and deploy a commercial space station called the Orbital Reef — think, the ISS but with more intrusive advertising — by the second half of this decade. NASA has since awarded the project a Space Act Agreement, along with funding through the design phase, as part of its Commercial LEO Development program.
Virgin Galactic, on the other hand, started its 2021 off in a holding pattern. The company’s SpaceShip II test at the end of last December — its first major flight out of the Spaceport America site in New Mexico – ended in abruptly after the ship’s engine failed to ignite. A subsequent redo test scheduled for February was also delayed to May after the company opted to make additional “technical checks.”
While these aren’t major setbacks in the same vein as say an exploding StarShip, VG’s continued delays have pushed back the company’s goal of commercial space tourism flights to at least 2022. They did not, however, impact 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, flinging a pair of pilots and a cargo hold full of NASA experiments into the very upper reaches of the atmosphere. The following month, Virgin Galactic received approval from the FAA to begin commercial operations, becoming the first such company to secure permission from the aviation industry. With the FAA’s blessing firmly in hand, Virgin Galactic decided to blast CEO Sir Richard Branson into space — heedless of Blue Origin’s derisions — the following month. On July 11th, Branson and his crew did just that — well, technically.
Buoyed by the success of their boss’ flight, Virgin Galactic began offering tickets to would-be space tourists for the low, low discount price of $450,000. As of the start of November, more than 100 tickets have been sold.
Branson’s flight was not flawless, however, and that raised the ire of the FAA. During SpaceShip II’s landing, the spacecraft “deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America,” per the FAA. In a subsequent statement from the company, Virgin disagreed with the FAA’s characterization.
“When the vehicle encountered high altitude winds which changed the trajectory, the pilots and systems monitored the trajectory to ensure it remained within mission parameters,” the company argued. “Our pilots responded appropriately to these changing flight conditions exactly as they were trained and in strict accordance with our established procedures. Although the flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely at our Spaceport in New Mexico. At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory.” A brief investigation by the FAA eventually cleared the company 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 start of the next decade. If Virgin Galactic’s recent price hike 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 may have had the honor of temporarily escaping our gravity well, don’t think you’ll get your chance anytime soon — unless you can win it like a Golden Ticket like Keisha S did.