Who will win the commercial space race?
The sort of people who start tech companies tend to be an idealistic, not to say ideological, bunch. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have given umpteen speeches about how the industry can change the world over years, but for some such ambition is petty – the real goal is space.
Governments have been making forays out of Earth’s atmosphere for some years now, but entrepreneurs from around the world are now in hot pursuit. Space tourism, space migration and space transport are just of the few ideas orbiting. But who exactly is going to win the commercial space race?
1. Jeff Bezos, chief executive of Amazon
It is not obvious where the link between book selling and space travel lies, but Earth was never likely to accommodate the ever-burgeoning growth of the ecommerce leviathan Amazon.
This is where Jeff Bezos’ lesser known project Blue Origin steps in. Founded in 2000, the company is currently working on creating vehicles so that ordinary folks can travel to suborbital and orbital space, with later plans to include space homes and workplaces.
As Bezos told Business Insider just this week: "New worlds have a way of saving old worlds…and that’s how it should be. We need the frontier. My vision is I want to see millions of people living and working in space."
2. Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal
Elon Musk’s SpaceX attracted attention from the press this week for the ostensibly bizarre reason that it had posted a job vacancy for a farmer, prompting speculation it may be seeking agricultural tax breaks in Texas for land use.
Yet the firm’s ambitions are far loftier than making crop circles, with a stated end goal of colonising Mars. "The reason I haven’t taken SpaceX public is the goals of SpaceX are very long-term, which is to establish a city on Mars," Musk said at a press briefing in September.
In more mundane activities, the company has won NASA contracts to deliver goods to the International Space Station, and is looking to develop spaceflight for both US astronauts and commercial customers.
3. Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group
The fortunes of Virgin Galactic faced a severe reversal this October when a manned test flight of the VSS Enterprise broke up and crashed into the Mojave Desert in California.
This is not the first time Richard Branson’s enthusiasm about being the first to bring spaceflight to the masses has been tested, with the Galactic project subject to numerous delays despite promises from the Virgin founder that maiden space voyage was just around the corner.
The company has also had some dealings with NASA in the past, having signed a deal involving £2.9m worth of research flights in 2011 and transport deal to carry "payloads" such as satellites and probes to space in September of this year.
4. Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft
Stratolaunch Systems is one of the younger companies exploring space, having been founded by Paul Allen and Burt Rutan, the man behind Scaled Composites, whose pilots were manning Virgin Galactic’s VSS Enterprise before the accident.
Like its competitors, Stratolaunch is looking to create "safe, flexible and affordable orbital access to space", imagining a different approach involving a rocket launch from the world’s largest aircraft carrier, with a wingspan of 385 feet.
The method would allow greater flexibility in terms of launch sites, which may prove important as companies aim to spread the commercial flights around the world, with the first plane thought likely to be based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
5. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founders of Google
Google is a company famous for its "moon shots", in which the company does crazy things and takes chances that others would not. It should be no surprise then that the company is actually trying to send spacecraft to the moon, in the form of the Lunar XPRIZE.
The scheme involves £19m worth of prizes for "robotic space transport on a budget". To win contestants must land a robot safely on the moon, move 500 metres above or below the satellite’s surface, and then send back "Mooncasts" (videos to you and me).
It is a plan as normal as much of the work Google is doing, and although it is not playing in the commercial spaceflight game right now it is an effort to boldly go where no corporation has gone before.