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Rocket men: why tech’s biggest billionaires want their place in space

The explosion could be felt 30 miles away. At 9.07am on 1 September, a SpaceX rocket containing 75,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene ignited into a fireball that could be seen from orbit, billowing black smoke into the gray sky around its Cape Canaveral launch pad.

Article by Dan Tynan

On board was a $200m, 12,000lb communications satellite – part of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s project to deliver broadband access to sub-Saharan Africa.

Zuckerberg wrote, with a note of bitterness, on his Facebook page that he was “deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX’s launch failure destroyed our satellite”. SpaceX founder Elon Musk told CNN it was the “most difficult and complex failure” the 14-year-old company had ever experienced.

It was also the second dramatic explosion in nine months for SpaceX, following a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” of a booster rocket as it attempted to land after a successful mission to the International Space Station.

Later that day, Nasa’s official Twitter account responded: “Today’s @SpaceX incident – while not a Nasa launch – reminds us that spaceflight is challenging.”

Yet despite those challenges, a small band of billionaire technocrats have spent the past few years investing hundreds of millions of dollars into space ventures. Forget gilded mansions and super yachts; among the tech elite, space exploration is the ultimate status symbol.

Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002, is arguably the most visible billionaire in the new space race. The apparent inspiration for Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark character in Iron Man, Musk has become a god-like figure for engineers, making his fortune at PayPal and then as CEO of luxury electric car firm Tesla and clean energy company Solar City. Yet it is his galactic ambitions, insiders say, that really motivate him. “His passion is settling Mars,” says one.

SpaceX has completed 32 successful launches since 2006, delivered cargo to the International Space Station and secured more than $10bn in contracts with Nasa and other clients. Musk has much grander ambitions, though, saying he plans to create a “plan B” for humanity in case Earth ultimately fails. He once famously joked that he hoped to die on Mars – just not on impact.

The alternative to extinction is to become ‘multi-planetary’

Musk has outlined an ambitious timeline for colonizing the red planet, which he said could begin as soon as 2022. Speaking to the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico in September, Musk described a 400-foot-tall rocket that would ferry 100 colonists at a time to Mars over a period of decades.

“One [path] is that we stay on Earth forever and then there will be an inevitable extinction event,” he told the audience of scientists and engineers. “The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilization, and a multi-planetary species.”

Ashlee Vance, longtime tech journalist and author of Elon Musk: Tesla, Space, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, thinks these ambitions are driven by a mix of entrepreneurial curiosity, altruism and a dash of egotism. “The guys who are rulers of the universe now are the nerds,” he says. “They were all geeks raised on science fiction and the vision of space we had in the 1960s and 70s. Now they have the money to make this a reality.”

And no one more so than Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his estimated fortune of $67bn. Blue Origin, which he founded in 2000 and kept secret until 2006, has also unveiled plans for its New Glenn launch vehicle, a 270ft rocket capable of carrying passengers to Mars. The company has made a dozen test launches, including October’s test of the in-flight escape system for the unashamedly phallic New Shepard rocket.

Blue Origin landed a small contract with Nasa to conduct suborbital research missions in June 2015, but has yet to complete a commercial flight. In June 2016, Bezos told reporters Blue Origin would begin test flights carrying humans next year. He ends many of his emails and tweets with the Blue Origin motto “Gradatim Ferociter” – “Step by step, ferociously”.

Altruism, or egotism?

At a conference in June, Bezos compared the new space industry to the early days of the internet – likening it to how the fiber optic cable laid for voice communications in the 1960s and 1970s ultimately paved the way for today’s data-driven economy.

“I’m building infrastructure the hard way,” he said. “I’m using my resources to put in place heavy lifting infrastructure … so that future generations of entrepreneurs can have a solar system as dynamic and interesting and varied as what we see on the internet today.”

Bezos is interested in an unlimited future economy where much of our manufacturing takes place in space, sparing Earth from pollution. “You go to space to save Earth,” Bezos said. “We have sent robotic probes all over the solar system. Let me assure you, this is the best planet.”

Bezos and Musk have developed an intense personal rivalry, says Ashlee Vance. “As time has gone on and these companies have been successful, ambitions have grown. Musk and Bezos used to be cordial, but they’re vicious now.”

In 2013, SpaceX and Blue Origin fought over control of a Nasa launch pad and a patent for landing rockets at sea; Musk won both tussles. When Blue Origin tried to block SpaceX from using the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Musk emailed Space News slamming the company and questioning its ability to build a rocket that would meet Nasa standards. “We are more likely to discover unicorns dancing in the flame duct,” Musk wrote.

After a successful Blue Origin test launch and landing in November 2015, Bezos used his first ever tweet to boast about “the rarest of beasts – a used rocket”. Musk replied: “Not quite ‘rarest’. SpaceX Grasshopper did 6 suborbital flights 3 years ago & is still around”.

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