2021: The year of space tourism

By Jackie Wattles, CNN Business

When future generations write about the history of space travel, 2021 may well have its own chapter. “The Year of the Billionaires,” you might call it.

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

And it all promises to be just the start.

The trio of space billionaires – Branson, Bezos and Elon Musk – have their eyes set on the future. Over the past year, their visions have continued to clash, sparking much controversy and overbidding.

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 worked for years to develop spacecraft capable of taking paying customers on short supersonic trips to the edge of space, promising to usher in an era in which to book a flight to see the Earth from space is as simple as a jet across the Atlantic. (It should be noted that Musk’s SpaceX is not in the suborbital tourism game. His rockets and spacecraft take much longer and more dangerous journeys in Earth orbit.)

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

Bezos, founder of rocket company Blue Origin, planned to become the first person to travel to 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 it for a $ 28 million, although this auction winner ultimately didn’t fly.)

Then Branson barged in, announcing a few days later that he was planning to jump on the next flight of the rocket-propelled space plane developed by his company, Virgin Galactic, July 11 – nine days before Bezos’ mission.

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

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

To add to the spectacle, both flights also carried notable teammates for billionaires.

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

Branson brought with him Sirisha Bandla, director of Virgin Galactic, who only became the second A woman of Indian origin will fly into space and back.

Shaping the suborbital space

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

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

Blue Origin, meanwhile, has faced its own controversies, though none have indicated 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 saying it had “no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind”.

Inspiration4 flies higher

Although Musk has no apparent plans to join any of SpaceX’s missions, his company has continued to prove its technological skills. It has significantly expanded its space Internet service, Starlink, expanding the constellation to include approximately 2,000 satellites. His Dragon spaceship too spear and return of astronauts to and from the International Space Station this year, and it topped the billionaire space tourism competition with a historic space tourism mission.

SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission, self-funded by billionaire payments platform CEO Jared Isaacman, sent Isaacman and three others, none of whom were professional astronauts, on a three day trip to orbit who 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 funds 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.

It all happened (almost) without a hitch.

Yet all the news of billionaires in space has generated a lot of backlash, including from figures such as the Secretary General of the United Nations and Prince william.

A “disease is spreading in our world today: a disease of mistrust”, UN Secretary General António Guterres noted in September, adding that it includes “billionaires moving through space while millions of people go hungry on earth.”

Bezos vs. Musk

Playing behind 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 to be at the center of NASA’s action plans to send astronauts back to the moon this decade. But after initially 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 off we went. with Musk’s SpaceX. He awarded $ 2.9 billion to the company.

Blue Origin has fought this move all year, saying NASA unfairly favors SpaceX. Meanwhile, the public relations offensives and twitter battles has begun.

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

The test highlighted the importance of government contracts for the viability of the commercial space industry. Although these companies are private, their sources of income still depend heavily on taxpayer money.

And the battle over NASA’s lunar lander contract has queued up what will certainly be more high-profile battles and an interesting few years to come, as NASA and its contractors make their way to the surface. lunar for the first time in half a century.

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