The crazy billionaire race into space

Several super-rich are currently striving into space with their rockets. But what drives them? And how useful is it that with so much money you can turn age-old wishes into reality? 

"When is a man a man?" Herbert Grönemeyer When this question was pressed into the microphone for the first time in 1984, one of his answers was: “Men build rockets.” Back then, in the late phase of the Cold War, the German singer could not have guessed that today's multi-billionaires Richard Branson Elon Musk and Jeffrey Bezos already had their boy's idea of ​​space in their heads and actually implemented it at some point.

“I've dreamed of going into space since I was five,” left AmazonCEO Bezos knew the audience when he announced his own maiden rocket flight with his brother for July 20, 2021. Branson's mother always taught little Richard "never to give up and reach for the stars". And Tesla-Boss Elon Musk recently shared about his childhood: "I was always busy making explosives and reading books, building missiles and doing things that could have killed me."

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Elon Musk founded his space company SpaceX with the aim of colonizing Mars and making interplanetary flights a reality. When and whether this will happen is unclear, but at least his ships are supposed to go to the moon on behalf of the NASA fliegen. Richard Branson, Boss of Virgin Galactic, wanted from the beginning to bring space tourists into orbit of the earth. On July 11th, he wants to be the first billionaire to start the space maiden flight of his VSS Unity. Jeff Bezos Space company Blue Origin launched the New Shepardrocket placed on July 20th. Here, too, the boss wants to be on board personally. Branson's and Bezos projects in particular are seen as a possible starting signal for the start of the continuous, privately organized one Space tourism.

With the space shuttle "VSS Unity", the six-person team around billionaire Richard Branson will go into space. (Source: Virgin Galactic)With the space shuttle “VSS Unity”, the six-person team around billionaire Richard Branson will go into space. (Source: Virgin Galactic)

Rich narcissists who want to set themselves apart

In view of all these costly space plans of the super-rich, one could quickly get the idea that narcissistic personalities are simply looking for maximum differentiation from the common people: Stay on earth, we'd rather look around upstairs. Take off to set yourself apart. Maybe even to make you forget the ballast of your own immeasurable wealth for a few minutes in weightlessness.

A little of that kitchen psychology may be entertaining. But the three CEOs are primarily concerned with tough business. One day, many billions of dollars could be turned over with space tourism. According to the Swiss bank UBS is already worth more than $ 244 billion to the space tourism industry.

The Race to Space marketing trick

As in most life, it's about prestige. But also about lucrative, also state, orders. And wealthy passengers. In Bezos “New Shepard” rocket on July 20, next to him, his brother and the 82-year-old former astronaut Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk, an as yet unknown person is said to have paid $ 28 million for his space ticket . At some point, maybe ten years from now, not only the ultra-rich but also the “normal-rich” should be able to afford a ticket. So there are enough reasons to start the marketing machinery alongside the engines.

Strictly speaking, Branson's now starting machine “VSS Unity” is more of a rocket-powered aircraft than a rocket in the classic sense. And whether he and Bezos really fly into space could be argued in view of the planned 80 and 100 kilometers of flight altitude. But the marketer's longing for another “space race”, a race into space, seems to be too great for the media to want to forego this historical comparison with the 1950s and 1960s.

The PR power amplifier may have been ignited with the “Space Race”. In any case, none of this is a real “billionaire race”. Elon Musk does not (yet) want to fly with SpaceX himself. And the first manned flight with the rocket he financed to ISS took place in November 2020. But at least: With Branson and Bezos, the two bosses are flying with them.

Gone are the days when Russians and Americans, as cosmonauts and astronauts, fought a proxy competition for systems. After all, the uninvited on the international space station is happening China set off to build his own “heavenly palace”, the modular Tiangong space station, in orbit around the earth. But the great era of state space projects such as the American Apollo or space shuttle programs has come to an end. Not only NASA has long been using private companies. The Russian space agency Roskosmos also brought space tourists to the ISS in the early 2000s with the US company Space Adventures.

The latest test run by Blue Origin: Jeff Bezos plans to fly into space on July 20th with such a "New Shepard" rocket. (Source: Blue Origin)The latest test run by Blue Origin: Jeff Bezos plans to fly into space on July 20th with such a “New Shepard” rocket. (Source: Blue Origin)

What's the point of all this?

One thing is clear: the Bezos, Musk and Branson projects have the potential to give the private space economy a huge boost. You are the benchmark. If they fail, even their earthly projects will fail in case of doubt. Elon Musk was not only criticized once, his ambitious Mars flight plans almost meant the financial end for Tesla. After all, he has since moved away from the idea of ​​transforming Mars into a second earth with an atmosphere. But a self-sufficient Martian colony, that's what he still dreams of.

Which brings up an important question: What is the point of all this?

Cleverly use the billionaires for their business models the fascination that the endless expanses have exerted on mankind for a long time. But to discover strange worlds, unknown forms of life and new civilizations, it would take more than boy's dreams, namely at least the speed of light.

The neighboring solar system Alpha Centauri is 40 trillion kilometers from Earth. With a speed of light of around 300.000 meters per second you would be there in 4,3 years (light years). How the rockets from Elon Musk's SpaceX company can even come close to reaching such cosmic speeds is written in the stars. Whether there will be a livable planet there is completely open.

Elon Musk regularly celebrates successes with SpaceX: for example with the successful launch of the spacecraft "SN15" from the company's own space center in Texas in May 2021. (Source: imago images)Elon Musk regularly celebrates successes with SpaceX: for example with the successful launch of the spacecraft "SN15" from the company's own space center in Texas in May 2021. (Source: imago images)

Environmental Issues and Other Earthly Whataboutism

So maybe solve the problems on your own planet first? Fans of the expansion of the private space economy like to rave about the fact that a view of the world from above could have something in common. The more influential people have seen this, the higher the likelihood that something like the Klimawandel would be fought sustainably? Climate change has never been such a decisive global issue. It seems to many anachronistic and decadent to shoot rockets with fossil fuel and paying tourists into space.

"What I find difficult is that they themselves do not understand how split their own behavior is, on the one hand doing something good, but on the other hand taking it away again," said Paul Peeters, Professor of Sustainable Tourism and Transport at Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, recently the “Politico” spin-off “E&E News”. That is "a pretty risky business", at least for the environment.

In the SWR, the philosopher and author Christoph Quarch spoke of a “prepubertal goofing” of the three billionaires. “My rocket can last longer than yours and I'm faster than you,” is the motto. The space ambitions are irresponsible for him from the point of view of climate protection.

Is there nothing more important in the world?

The extent to which the industry, which is now hardly a major factor, would complicate the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement can hardly be determined, also because the companies do not provide precise data on their emissions. In the end, however, the governments, as regulators, should play an important role in this. Will rockets ever fly with e-fuels or green hydrogen? It would be conceivable, but it would again be associated with high costs and high security requirements.

The question of social justice could also be asked. While Amazon, for example, is repeatedly confronted with accusations around the world of paying too few taxes and paying employees too poorly, the boss and richest man in the world is making his rocket dreams for the super-rich.

David Beasley, the head of the World Food Program, tirelessly reminds us to finally end hunger on earth. Most recently, he tweeted to Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos: “I'm so excited to see who will make it into space first! But I'd rather see you band together to save the 41 million people who will starve on earth this year! All it takes is $ 6 billion. We can solve that quickly! "

The three space travelers have not yet answered him. Earthly whataboutism is possibly a size too small. It's about something bigger and maybe a little bit about three men and their egos.