Their achievements and ambitions are examined in closer, and more colourful, detail in The Space Barons, written by Christian Davenport, a veteran Washington Post reporter. His book is a study in contrasts between the two billionaire space entrepreneurs. Musk, the founder of SpaceX, is the impassioned, fast-moving, publicity-seeking hustler determined to do everything today, if not yesterday. Bezos, the founder of Blue Origin, is the calculating, secretive, methodical engineer, who adopted the turtle as his company’s mascot and lives by the Navy Seal motto: “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”
Just as the initial space race was animated by the superpower rivalry between the Soviet Union and the US, so the personal competition between Musk and Bezos is leading to a frantic new cycle of investment and innovation. Rivalry, Davenport says, is the best rocket fuel for space exploration.
At first, both entrepreneurs were seen as eccentric dilettantes by much of the US space establishment. But, as the author explains, they have won round the space professionals by notching up some remarkable achievements, particularly in developing cheaper, reusable rockets, which are revolutionising the economics of space travel.
But the two entrepreneurs are focused on very different longer term goals. For Musk, the ambition is to colonise Mars, which he admits is a bit of a “fixer-upper of a planet”. As Musk sees it, Mars would provide an alternative home for humanity if ever an asteroid hit Earth. Musk has famously said that he eventually wants to die on Mars, if not on impact.
For Bezos, the preferable plan is to preserve the Earth as humanity’s Plan A and ensure that it is habitable for thousands of years. His ultimate ambition is to make space travel routine and shift dirty industries off our planet, leaving Earth as “zoned residential and light industrial”.
In spite of their impressive accomplishments, the hubris of both Musk and Bezos will strike many readers as monumental. Space travel remains a perilous and unpredictable undertaking. The book serves as a useful reminder that popular expectations can sometimes run way ahead of reality.
In the 1960s, Pan Am tried to exploit the huge interest in the Apollo space programme by opening a waiting list to carry passengers to the moon, even though the airline admitted “the starting date of service is not yet known”. By 1971, when it stopped taking reservations, Pan Am had signed up 90,000 passengers, including Ronald Reagan and Walter Cronkite. The airline folded in 1992, well before it ever had a chance to blast a single passenger into space.