The year of space tourism

By Jackie Wattles, CNN Business

(CNN) — When future generations write about the history of space travel, 2021 just might have its own chapter. “The year of the billionaires”, one might call it.

Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have each taken supersonic rides to the far reaches of space, finally commissioning their competing private sector spacecraft after roughly two decades of promise. Celebrities such as 90-year-old “Star Trek” actor William Shatner and “Good Morning America” ​​co-host Michael Strahan followed soon after. Another billionaire has self-funded a historic three-day mission aboard a SpaceX orbital capsule that flew higher than any human has traveled in decades.

And all of this promises to be just the beginning.

The trio of space billionaires – Branson, Bezos and Elon Musk – have their eyes on the future. Over the past year, their visions have continued to clash with each other, sparking much controversy and one-upmanship.

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 vs. Bezos

The Branson and Bezos space companies have been working for years to develop spacecraft capable of taking paying customers on brief supersonic journeys to the far reaches of space, promising to usher in an era in which to book a flight to see Earth from space is as easy as jet across the Atlantic. (Musk’s SpaceX, it should be noted, is not in the suborbital tourism game. Its rockets and spacecraft take much longer and more dangerous journeys into Earth orbit.)

We are not there yet. But the two billionaires have pledged to launch their respective suborbital space tourism businesses by doing the rides themselves, both to show confidence in the safety of their vehicles and some strategic public relations.

Bezos, founder of rocket company Blue Origin, planned to become the first person to travel into space aboard a spacecraft developed by his own company, aiming for a July 20 launch. (Blue Origin even auctioned off a ticket to ride alongside them for a $28 millionalthough this auction winner ultimately did not fly.)

Then Branson swooped in, announcing a few days later that he planned to hop on the next flight of the rocket-powered spaceplane developed by his company, Virgin GalacticJuly 11 — nine days before Bezos’ mission.

Who triggered an immediate wave of speculation that — although Branson has said many times in interviews he doesn’t see his competition with Bezos as a “race” – there was a bitter rivalry brewing behind the scenes.

The two billionaires’ flights ended with no apparent trouble, with the men stepping out of their respective spaceships outfitted in custom flight suits and beaming for the cameras.

To add to the spectacle, both flights also carried notable billionaire crewmates.

Bezos was joined by an 82-year-old man Wally Funkwho trained for NASA’s Mercury program in 1961 but never went to space, and then aged 18 Olivier Daemen, the son of a wealthy businessman. The couple became the oldest and youngest people to travel in space, respectively. (Funk’s record was broken soon after by the William Shatner, 90 years old.)

Branson took with him Virgin Galactic executive Sirisha Bandla, who only became the second An Indian woman flies to space and back.

Shaping suborbital space

Bezos’ successful launch in July catapulted the company into a busy rest of the year spent flying high-profile figures as “guests of honour,” meaning they didn’t have did not have to pay for tickets. Chat made its suborbital excursion in Octobera feat widely celebrated by “Star Trek” fans that was followed by a Amazon special video on the flight. Michael Strahan and Laura Shepard Churchley, the daughter of famous astronaut Alan Shepard, flew in december.

While Blue Origin sent celebrities into space, Virgin Galactic faces significant delays. A report from the New Yorker revealed that warning lights had gone out in the cockpit during Branson’s flight and that the spaceplane had traveled outside of its designated airspace for 41 seconds. The Federal Aviation Administration suspended all flights pending a review, which concluded in September and gave Virgin Galactic the green light. Yet the company is delaying the start of commercial services, citing unrelated tech upgrades.

Blue Origin, meanwhile, has faced its own controversies, though none have reported specific safety issues with its rocket or spacecraft.

Instead, a group of 21 current and former employees co-signed a letter alleging that the company operates a toxic work environment where “professional dissent” is “actively suppressed”. Blue Origin responded to the allegations by saying it had “zero tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind”.

Inspiration4 flies higher

Although Musk apparently has no plans to join any of SpaceX’s missions, his company has continued to prove its technological credentials. It has significantly expanded its space internet service, Starlink, expanding the constellation to include around 2,000 satellites. His Dragon spacecraft also spear and returning astronauts to and from the International Space Station this year, and he topped the billionaire space tourism competition with his own historic space tourism mission.

SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission, self-funded by billionaire payments platform CEO Jared Isaacman, sent Isaacman and three other people, none of whom were professional astronauts, on a three-day trip to orbit who has traveled even higher than the International Space Station – higher than any human has traveled in this century.

Passengers floated around the capsule, played songs, created artwork and stayed in touch with ground control as their 13-foot-wide capsule circled the planet every 90 minutes or so, traveling at over 17,500 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 promised to donate $50 million.

Everything explodedalmost) without a hitch.

Yet all the news of billionaires in space has generated a lot of backlashincluding prominent figures such as the United Nations Secretary General and Prince William.

A “disease is spreading in our world today: a disease of mistrust,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. mentioned in September, adding that this includes “billionaires walking around in space while millions go hungry on earth.”

Bezos vs. Musk

Playing in the background of all the space tourism hype was a tense battle between the two richest people on the planet.

Bezos and Musk each want their own businesses at the center of NASA plans to send astronauts back to the moon this decade. But after originally planning 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 so it went. Musk’s SpaceX. He awarded $2.9 billion for the company.

Blue Origin fought the move all year, saying NASA unfairly favored SpaceX. During this time, the Public relations offensives and Twitter battles has begun.

But a federal judge dealt a blow to Blue Origin in November by ruling in favor of NASA and SpaceX. This threw into question the future of the Bezos-owned company’s plans to build a lunar lander.

The ordeal highlighted the importance of government contracts to the viability of the commercial space industry. Although these companies are private, their sources of revenue still rely heavily on taxpayers’ money.

And the battle over NASA’s lunar lander contract has queued up what are sure to be more high-profile battles and some interesting years to come, as NASA and its contractors chart a path back. to the lunar surface for the first time in half a century.

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