2021 may well be tagged, “The year of the space billionaires,” as the trio of space billionaires — Branson, Bezos and Elon Musk — set their sights squarely on the future of space travel.
The two-decade expectation of spacecraft was realized in 2021 when Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson each took supersonic joy rides to the edge of space.
Celebrities such as 90-year-old “Star Trek” actor William Shatner and “Good Morning America” co-host Michael Strahan followed soon after. Another billionaire self-funded a historic, three-day mission aboard a SpaceX orbital capsule that flew higher than any human has traveled in decades.
And all that promises to just be the beginning.
Branson’s and Bezos’ space companies have for years been working to develop spacecraft capable of taking paying customers on brief, supersonic trips to the edge of space, promising to usher in an age in which booking a flight to view the Earth from space is as easy as jetting across the Atlantic.
Bezos, founder of the rocket firm Blue Origin, planned to become the first person ever to travel to space aboard a spacecraft his own company developed, setting his sights on a July 20 launch.
Then, Branson came along, announcing days later that he planned to hop on the next flight of the rocket-powered space plane developed b his own company, Virgin Galactic.
Bezos was joined by 82-year-old Wally Funk, who famously trained for NASA’s Mercury program in 1961 but never went to space, and then-18-year-old Oliver Daemen, the son of a wealthy businessman. The pair became the oldest and youngest people, respectively, ever to travel to space. Funk’s record was bested shortly after by the 90-year-old William Shatner.
Bezos’ successful July launch catapulted the company into a busy rest of the year spent flying some high-profile figures as “honorary guests” — meaning they didn’t have to pay for tickets.
While Blue Origin was sending celebrities to space, Virgin Galactic had to deal with reports that warning lights had gone off in the cockpit during Branson’s flight and the space plane had traveled outside its designated airspace for 41 seconds. The Federal Aviation Administration grounded all flights pending a review, which ended in September and gave Virgin Galactic the all-clear.
Though Musk does not have any apparent plans to join one of SpaceX’s missions, his company has continued to expand its space-based internet service, Starlink, growing the constellation to include roughly 2,000 satellites.
Its Dragon spacecraft launched and returned astronauts to and from the International Space Station in 2021, topping the billionaire space tourism competition with a historic space tourism mission of its own.
SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission, self-funded by billionaire payments platform CEO Jared Isaacman, sent Isaacman and three other people, none of whom were professional astronauts, on a three-day trip to orbit that traveled even higher than the International Space Station — higher than any human has traveled this century.
The passengers floated around the capsule, played songs, created works of art and kept in touch with ground control as their 13-foot-wide capsule whisked around the planet once about every 90 minutes, traveling at more than 17,500 miles per hour.
Bezos and Musk each want their own companies to be at the center of NASA’s program to return astronauts to the moon this decade. But for budgetary constraints, NASA later went with Musk’s SpaceX. It awarded a $2.9 billion moon lander contract to SpaceX.
Blue Origin fought that decision all year, saying NASA unfairly favored SpaceX.
A federal judge in the United States delivered a major blow to Blue Origin in November by ruling in favor of NASA and SpaceX. That put the future of the Bezos-owned company’s plans to build a lunar lander into question.
The ordeal highlighted how important government contracts are to the viability of the commercial space industry. Though these companies are private, their revenue streams still rely on public funding.