The future of space travel according to Bezos, Musk, and Branson

As billionaires Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk use their private space exploration companies to shoot for the stars, they have been dogged by persistent, progressive criticism that this is all a highly combustible vanity project. “Billionaire Space Race: Shameless Vanity Projects in a World of Want” read one representative headline on the website Socialist Alternative.

But is it more than that? The Washington Examiner asked a rocket scientist for thoughts on what, if anything, these titans of industry are contributing to the future of space exploration.

“We are on the cusp of transition in space transportation comparable to the introduction of the DC-3 in aviation, or perhaps the transition from reciprocating engines to jets in commercial aviation,” said rocket engineer and consultant James Bennett. “The maritime analogy would be from sailing ships to steam in ocean navigation — perhaps the best analogy because steam changed the way everything was done in ocean transport.”

The man he pointed to as most responsible for this possibility is Musk.

Bennett called SpaceX’s Starship and Super Heavy combination “so radical in its effect that Musk has effectively tossed his hat over the fence.”

He also proposed a ruler to measure SpaceX’s success.

“If Starship does not enable mass migration to Mars, it will have been a failure,” he said. ”It is simply too big for any lesser market. Although, if it is established in that market, it will flood every other market for space transportation as a byproduct.”

In that event, Bennett predicts that Bezos’s Blue Origin is the “only possible survivor” for a competitor to Musk’s SpaceX.

Blue Origin is working on a big launcher that “used to be dubbed New Armstrong, but now the intermediate launcher, New Glenn, seems to be growing in size in order to compete with Musk sooner,” Bennett said. However, he added that it is hard to know precisely what Blue Origin is up to “because they are so secretive. But Bezos needs to hurry up.”

As for Branson, Bennett regards him as a “sideshow” in this private space race who “missed his window of opportunity by not launching in the first half of the last decade. Now he’s just a novelty and may go after the terrestrial point-to-point market instead of deep space.”

Bennett sized up the Bezos-Musk rivalry in terms of one of Aesop’s Fables.

“Bezos had a good concept, but he loaded up his company with too many old-company legacy managers from Boeing, etc.,” he said. “Musk hired smart young kids mostly and managed them himself, marching them at a pace like the Bataan Death March. Bezos thought he would be the tortoise and beat Musk’s hare, but he forgot that the rabbit has to stop for it to work. Instead, Musk is pushing on like the Energizer Bunny on methamphetamines.“

How fast are things accelerating?

“As they say, change happens, first slowly, then all at once. We may be close to all at once,” Bennett predicted.

In July, Bezos rode his own rocket into space for the first time.

“Many dismiss this as just a billionaire’s ego trip, the next step beyond superyachts and private jets. But there’s much more going on here than ego,” wrote Glenn Reynolds, author of America’s New Destiny in Space, in a New York Post op-ed. “Bezos, along with fellow billionaires Elon Musk of SpaceX and Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic, and other companies like Rocket Lab and Sierra Nevada, are moving us into the third phase [of space travel]: the sustainable phase. That’s when spaceflight generates enough revenue to pay for itself.”

Meanwhile, aerospace industry giant Boeing doesn’t even look to be a sideshow in the coming race to Mars and beyond.

“Boeing died when the money guys replaced the plane guys and moved to Chicago. It took a while for people to notice the smell,” Bennett said.

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The future of space travel according to Bezos, Musk, and Branson