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Innovation

SpaceX Mars City: Bezos and Branson reveal the flaw in Elon Musk's vision of space

The three billionaires are locked in a race to reach space — but some future visions look more promising than others.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In space, no one can hear you scream with excitement.

It’s a shame, as Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are making moves to massively expand space tourism. The two may both fly to space next month using the firms they founded, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.

Their end goal is to sell rides on their rockets and encourage space tourism. Bezos has a vision of establishing destinations in Earth’s orbit, gradually expanding to full-blown cities.

It stands in contrast to Elon Musk’s vision. The SpaceX CEO has long touted his goal to make humanity into a multi-planetary species. This would start with a city on Mars by 2050. While SpaceX has made steps toward civilian spaceflights, its main revenue focus has been on commercial satellite launches and its Starlink internet service.

It’s possible that Musk eventually reaches his goal and builds a city on Mars. It may also be true that “jobs won’t be in short supply” in the city, as Musk said in 2016. But in the near-term space economy, Bezos and Branson’s vision is looking lucrative.

“Commercial space tourism is one of the few sources of near-term demand about which there is arguably reason to be optimistic,” Matt Weinzierl, a professor at Harvard Business School who has written about the economics of space, tells Inverse.

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The three firms — SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic — were founded in the early 2000s. They form part of an emerging new space race, where private companies play a bigger role than the public sector-driven race of the 1960s.

Although they share similarities, the three have very different business plans.

Elon Musk’s stated goal with SpaceX is to make humanity into a multi-planetary species.BRITTA PEDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images

The new space race: what’s come before

  • SpaceX, founded in 2002, currently hosts orbital flights with its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket. The rockets lift off from launchpads in California and Florida, and the boosters aim to land on launchpads or drone ships in the sea. The company has launched 130 missions, 26 last year alone, mostly payloads for both public and private entities. It has also landed 87 boosters. It has launched three crewed missions for NASA to the International Space Station, the first in May 2020, using its four-person Crew Dragon capsule.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifting off.SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
  • Blue Origin, founded in 2000, hosts suborbital flights with its New Shepard rocket. The rocket launches and lands at its facility in Texas. The firm has designed a six-person capsule for use with the rocket. The company has launched 15 missions, landing almost every one except the first. It has never flown a crewed mission.
Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket.Blue Origin
  • Virgin Galactic, founded in 2004, hosts suborbital flights with its piloted SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. The six-passenger craft is lifted by an aircraft from its New Mexico facility, released, and then returns to Earth. It has flown a series of piloted test flights, but has yet to fly a non-test crew member.
VSS Unity, a SpaceShipTwo craft, coming in to land.GENE BLEVINS/AFP/Getty Images

The new space race: what comes next

As it stands, SpaceX looks like the winner. It’s launched far more missions than the other two, and fundraising rounds suggest the company is valued at $74 billion. Publicly-traded Virgin Galactic, on the other hand, is valued at just $8.6 billion.

SpaceX’s early revenue came from launching payloads for third parties — a relatively small industry, which as a whole brought in around $5 billion revenue in 2017.

Since 2020, it has started launching its own satellites to build out Starlink, offering high-speed and low-latency internet service. That’s a much bigger market, which Musk estimates to be worth around $1 trillion. Musk has suggested that Starlink could capture three to five percent of that, or up to $50 billion.

All of this is what Weinzierl referred to in a Harvard Business Review article as the “space-for-earth” economy, where goods and services support activities on Earth. In 2019, this comprised around 95 percent of the space sector’s $366 billion revenue.

Space-for-space, on the other hand, remains small. In the future, it could cover asteroid mining, space tourism, and even full-size habitats in outer space.

SpaceX's concept art for a city on Mars.SpaceX

SpaceX plans a series of civilian missions:

  • Inspiration4, set for September, will be the first all-civilian orbital flight.
  • Axiom Space plans a series of civilian flights to the ISS, two of which may host reality TV competition winners.
  • SpaceX plans to host a trip around the Moon for Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa in 2023, using the same Starship designed to go to Mars.

However, SpaceX’s stated long-term goal remains to reach other planets. Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, on the other hand, remain focused on flights closer to Earth.

Even in the long-term vision, Blue Origin sticks with Earth. In a May 2019 speech, Bezos outlined a vision of floating cities in space, within close proximity to Earth, enabling easy travel and communication.

Concept art shared by Blue Origin of what these colonies could look like.Blue Origin

The two firms are expected to make a splash in suborbital missions soon. Branson is rumored to be flying on a Virgin Galactic mission over the July 4 weekend. Bezos is expected to fly with his brother and four others on the first Blue Origin crewed mission on July 20.

One seat on Blue Origin’s flight is up for auction. At the time of writing, bidding has reached $4 million.

Weinzierl argues that civilian flights like these will be a huge draw for people, even if the cost stops most people from participating. This will be an important first step for building out a space-to-space economy.

“The importance of tourism is that it gets more people into space more often, and eventually for longer duration, which I believe is necessary for spurring a sustained and substantial expansion of the space economy,” he says. “Public-sector astronauts will never, I suspect, be numerous enough to drive a space-for-space economy in the way that commercial space tourists would.”

Virgin Galactic's cabin interior.Virgin Galactic

The new space race: the far future

SpaceX is aiming to send the first humans to Mars in the mid-2020s. They will be tasked with setting up a simple base to harvest fuel from the planet’s resources. This will gradually expand into a city on Mars by 2050.

Guenter Lang, an economics professor at Kühne Logistics University in Germany, tells Inverse that short flights to space, or even to low Earth orbit, will be a more attractive economic proposition than trips to Mars. He cites four reasons:

  1. Costs are lower. Lang estimates the price per kilogram to low Earth orbit is around $2,700. Suborbital flights like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic could be just $1,500. Assuming one person is 100 kg (220 pounds), that means it could cost just $150,000. Early Virgin Galactic tickets were priced at $250,000. That’s much cheaper than flights deeper into space.
  2. It’s easier for people. A short flight to suborbital space takes much less preparation. It’s the choice between a several-month trip to a barren planet versus a few hours on a trip to space.
  3. The financial risks are lower. Some flights may have technical problems. A canceled suborbital flight is a much smaller financial loss than a canceled flight to Mars.
  4. The founders are going. This will generate trust in the technology and encourage more people to go. Musk has suggested he wants to go to Mars, but there is no fixed timescale for that.

Musk is aiming for cheap flights to encourage people to Mars. In a February 2019 speech, Musk claimed a return ticket to Mars could cost $500,000. This price could drop to $100,000 over time. It should be noted that, as launch prices drop, flights to low-Earth orbit are also likely to drop in price.

SpaceX's concept of a rocket lifting off from a Mars city.SpaceX

It seems Musk is aware that the plan may offer limited returns in the short term. In a 2017 conference, where he pitched the Mars ship’s predecessor, he also explained that the ship could support flights to other cities around the Earth in less than an hour. A third-party analysis suggested these could cost $1,200 per ticket.

But ultimately, the three founders are all space enthusiasts. While they may experience short-term losses, they are likely willing to push through those to realize their ultimate goals.

“I am sure that it’s not only about profit, but about a vision,” Lang says.

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