Why are billionaires racing for space?

Why are monied entrepreneurs all dashing into space this week?
26 July 2021


A cartoon rocket



Listener Tim asked, "Why this sudden race for space on the part of Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk?"


Space boffin Richard Hollingham told Chris about why so many billionaires are flying to space this week:

Richard - Well, they've been doing it actually to be fair for the last 10, 20 years. It's taken a long time and I think it's more coincidence than anything else. And also COVID; the fact that they got to this stage now. And space tourism's actually been around for quite a long time. We had Dennis Tito flying, Richard Garriott, these multimillionaires flew on Soyuz back at the early part of the century. Other companies have gone. The ones that have sort of survived the space tourism: Virgin Galactic. You had Richard Branson go up the other week. We just had Jeff Bezos, fly in his spacecraft. 10 minute flight that will cost you probably about $300,000. We've now got new entrants into this as well. We talk about orbital flight now. So you've got these two suborbital flights with, so basically you go and then you come back down again, the parabolic flight with Virgin Galactic, with their space, plane and Blue Origin with their space craft, which was, I have to say that if you've got a spare 10 minutes and you haven't watched the flight, absolutely watch the flight.

Chris - You were watching that today, weren't you?

Richard - I was watching that today. Oldest person to go into space, Wally Funk. She's 82. She was one of the Mercury 13. So these were astronauts who took part in a private project to see if women, if women could go into space back in the sixties. NASA rejected the idea, the government rejected the idea. Women didn't get to fly in space with NASA until the 1980s, the first American woman in space, Sally Ride. And of course the Soviet Union had Valentina Tereshkova. So Wally finally got to fly in space and what's extraordinary, Wally is a friend of ours. And she's actually stayed in this very house where I am right now and she's just gone into space and because seeing her come out of the capsule, you know, just exuberant was just so fantastic.

Chris - So she would have experienced weightlessness when she was out there?

Richard - She would, yeah. It's a bit like a roller coaster with these suborbital flights. So it's, when you go over the bump on a roller coaster - I really hate roller coasters, I probably shouldn't go into space - when you go over the top and you've got that feeling of weightlessness, that's what they would have experienced. But with the Blue Origin, I think it was about four minutes of weightlessness they had. Virgin, similar amount of time, maybe slightly longer. So it's the parabola that does that with the weightlessness.

Chris - What did they say when the pair of them, Jeff Bezos and Wally Funk, when they returned to Earth? Did they give any comment?

Richard - Oh, well they were just exuberant. It was a lot of "This is fantastic. What an amazing thing." Wally said at one point "It felt like only five minutes," like she's just complaining. It's still space.

Chris - You'd never guess you're pretty positive. Richard. You're pretty buzzing, I'd say.

Eleanor - Oh my goodness. I just think it's so exciting. Like I'm a bit of a space nerd and I just think it's so cool, but this is a very serious question. Hypothetically, like 10 or 20 years time, how cheap are these prices going to get?

Richard - That is an interesting question because the people behind these projects, I mean, they have put millions into it. They liken it to the origins of aviation. So, you know, you had the Wright brothers fly, you then had biplanes, you had the first World War really accelerated things. But civilians weren't flying. Perhaps they were flying in maybe a little short hop, little sort of tourist flights in maybe the late twenties into the thirties. But aviation didn't really take off until late 50s, 60s, and of course with low cost airlines now. So, you know, the costs of space flight are way more than the costs of a plane, but there is a comparison there. And you think if you started mass producing this sort of technology, you can see how the price could come down and come down and come down. It will certainly be down to the thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands.


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