The Amazonification of Space Begins in Earnest

The anniversary of the Apollo moon landing marked one small step for space travel but a giant leap for space billionaires.

Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson vividly demonstrated this month that soaring up to the near reaches of the sky appeared safe and, above all, a lark. The planet has so many problems that it is a relief to escape them even for 10 minutes, which was about the length of the suborbital rides offered by the entrepreneurs through their respective companies, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.

But beyond the dazzlement was a deeper message: The Amazonification of space has begun in earnest. What was once largely the domain of big government is now increasingly the realm of Big Tech. The people who sold you the internet will now sell you the moon and the stars.

Mr. Bezos, the founder of Amazon and still its largest shareholder, made clear at the news conference after Tuesday’s flight that Blue Origin was open for business. Even though tickets were not generally available, sales for flights were already approaching $100 million. Mr. Bezos didn’t say what the price for each was but added, “The demand is very very high.”

That demand was there even before the world’s media flocked to Van Horn, Texas, for extensive and adulatory coverage of Mr. Bezos doing something Mr. Branson had done in New Mexico the week before. They saw a carefully orchestrated event, with the world’s oldest-ever astronaut and the world’s youngest along for the ride, capped by a $200 million philanthropic giveaway.

Smaller space ventures are even more wide open to entrepreneurs.

“If you look at where space is today, especially with respect to lower Earth orbit activities, it really is similar to the early days of the internet,” said West Griffin, chief financial officer of Axiom, a start-up aiming to build the first commercial space station.

The commercialization of space began during the 1990s dot-com boom but took much longer to reach fruition. The flights this month hark back to 1996, when the nonprofit organization X Prize announced a contest: $10 million to the first nongovernmental organization to build a reusable spacecraft that could take someone to an altitude of 100 kilometers, or 62.5 miles, and then do it again in less than two weeks.

The winning design in 2004 turned out to be SpaceShipOne in an effort led by Burt Rutan, an aerospace engineer who previously designed the Voyager airplane that flew around the world without stopping or refueling. It was financed by Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft who died in 2018.

The X Prize piqued Mr. Branson’s interest, too. He trademarked “Virgin Galactic Airways” in 1999, and licensed the SpaceShipOne technology. Mr. Branson hoped that a larger version could begin commercial flights within three years. It took 17 years instead.

A swelling ecosystem of start-ups is attempting to commercialize space by building everything from cheaper launch technology to smaller satellites to the infrastructure making up the “pickaxes and shovels” of space’s gold rush, as Meagan Crawford, a managing partner at the venture capital firm SpaceFund, puts it.

“People are looking around going: ‘There’s this robust space industry. Where did that come from?’” Ms. Crawford said. “Well, it’s been built methodically and purposefully, and it’s been a lot of hard work over the last 30 years to get us here.”

Mr. Branson has started another space offshoot, Virgin Orbit, that is launching small payloads to orbit. He has not hinted at grandiose visions like Mr. Musk and Mr. Bezos for spreading civilization into the solar system.

Mr. Musk’s Mars dreams began with a small quixotic quest: He wanted to send a plant to Mars and see if it could grow there. But the costs of launching even a small experiment were prohibitive. Even options in Russia were out of reach. So Mr. Musk founded SpaceX in 2002.

Today, he wants to send people, not plants, to Mars. SpaceX is currently developing Starship, large enough to make the journey, and Starlink, a satellite internet constellation, which aims to generate the profits needed to finance the Mars plans.

As it pursues those goals, the company has become a behemoth in the space business. NASA relies on SpaceX rockets and capsules to send astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station, and private, government and military satellite operators fly the reusable Falcon 9 booster rocket to orbit.

NASA recently awarded a contract to SpaceX to use its Starship prototype for the moon program. The contract was challenged by Blue Origin and another firm, Dynetics. For all the camaraderie on display this week, the billionaires play to win.

Kenneth Chang contributed reporting.

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