Two of the biggest figures in the tech industry are battling it out to lead humans to space. SpaceX’s Elon Musk has taken a big lead from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos – but who will ultimately win? And should they compete at all?
On May 30, Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 took two NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, into orbit. The privately funded venture proved the resilience of the private sector creating new investment opportunities.
Historically, the ‘Space Race’ had been between governments, with the United States and the Soviet Union starting the Sputnik movement with Earth’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik-1 which was launched back in 1957. SpaceX’s successful launch has revived the private sector of space exploration showing resilience, innovation, and progress.
In April 2020, NASA announced it had selected three American companies to design and develop human landing systems for the agency’s Artemis program. The goal is to land the first woman and next man on the surface of the Moon by the year 2024.
The NASA program includes SpaceX and Blue Origin, which was founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2000. Blue Origin is a privately funded aerospace manufacturer and suborbital spaceflight services company headquartered in Kent, Washington.
The third company is Leidos Holdings, which is owned by Dynetics of Huntsville, Alabama, and is developing the Dynetics Human Landing System. Another contender in the space race worthy of a mention is British entrepreneur Richard Branson.
Branson’s Virgin Orbit failed in its recent attempt to launch the LauncherOne rocket over the Pacific Ocean on May 25. At the time, Musk tweeted his condolences, commenting “Orbit is hard” – obviously Musk doesn’t view Branson as a competitor.
Bezos and Musk are bumping heads…
Let’s take a look at the two leading the space race.
The two billionaires leading the American space race, Musk and Bezos, have very different approaches to business and marketing.
Musk is known for his hilarious and provocative publicity stunts and headline-grabbing behavior – from the famous “funding secured” Twitter incident, to smoking marijuana on Joe Rogan’s podcast, to launching the Boring Company’s ‘not-a-flamethrower’ which back then raised an impressive $10 million after all 20,000 units sold out – and this was despite warnings from US politicians and the Home Office.
Other Musk antics include “accidentally” smashing a window on the newly-unveiled Tesla Cybertruck during the launch event live in front of an audience. Most recently, Musk announced he would sell “almost all” his physical belongings and tweeted that he “will own no house.” Musk is forever entertaining the media and seems to enjoy being a showman and thrives off all the attention he receives. His deal is wide-scope, ambitious futuristic projects, not always commercially sound (like Nikola Tesla).
In contrast, Bezos is a lot more private and careful with his public image and tweets. The quiet titan already controls about half of all e-commerce in the US, and is projected to be the world’s first trillionaire by 2026. Even the Covid-19 crisis, which has ravaged economies worldwide, has failed to put a significant dent in his profits.
Over the years, many have been concerned that Amazon has too much power. For example, the book publishing business is one area which the company is dominating – according to a survey by Codex Group, Amazon commands a 67-percent share of the e-book market.
This caused one of the most recent spats between the two billionaires, when in June Musk called for the “break up” of Amazon, echoing Bezos’ many critics. His tweet was provoked by the company’s refusal to host a self-published book criticizing coronavirus lockdowns, and the flamboyant SpaceX CEO used the chance to take a swipe at Bezos.
They have a long history of dissing each other online. Back in April 2019, Musk called Bezos a “copycat” after Amazon said it plans to launch a massive constellation of more than 3,000 internet satellites – just like Musk’s Starlink, which already has hundreds of satellites in orbit.
One step ahead with his vision, Musk wants to build a city on Mars and has been more open about his space vision whereas Bezos is keen on building a road to space. Musk is an engineering nerd with a sharp wit – amusing to those with a niche sense of humor. Fans of the ‘The Big Bang Theory’ can relate to his geek jokes and Twitter banter. Musk is difficult to manage and almost seen as a loose cannon.
Tesla shareholders have even attempted to block Musk from using Twitter, but Delaware judges denied a request by attorneys for Tesla shareholders to pursue a lawsuit seeking to prevent Musk from using the social network. Musk has also translated his boyish childhood dreams through his Tesla and SpaceX designs. The rocket and car designs look like futuristic toys … made real.
Bezos shares Musk’s strong ambition, his risk taking behavior, and adventurous spirit, but differs in many ways. Bezos is almost boring compared to Musk. He is detail-orientated and also quite adaptable. More calm, cool, collected with a strong projection of authority.
…but they shouldn’t be
For all their political and public differences, Musk and Bezos also share remarkable similarities.
Both have capitalized on the coronavirus pandemic, though each in his own way.
Amazon has flourished as an online e-commerce business with the locked-down population turning to online orders for essentials. According to data from the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, it is estimated in February 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic peaked Musk was $80 billion behind the Amazon founder.
Musk pushed Tesla’s stock higher by flirting with the ‘red pill’ and pushing hard to re-open the carmaker’s Fremont, California factory, in defiance of authorities. In 2020, Tesla’s stock has been reading higher than ever.
Both billionaires have invested vast amounts of their own capital in the space projects. In 2019, Bezos sold nearly one million shares equivalent of $1.8 billion worth of Amazon stock, according to SEC filings in 2019 which allows him to do other things with his money such as fund his space venture.
Ultimately, their visions for the future of space travel also align. Both Musk and Bezos have been frustrated by the lack of progress in the area and have taken matters in their own hands. They have proven resourceful in facing knock-backs and overcome failure – as evidenced in SpaceX’s landing failure reel.
Some would even argue Blue Origin and SpaceX are not direct competitors – or shouldn’t be. SpaceX launches satellites to orbit, and Blue Origin cannot even reach orbit.
But for all the publicity SpaceX gets, Bezos’ Blue Origin should not be written off – it has reached sub-orbital space on a number of occasions. The New Shepard is a reusable rocket built by Blue Origin that was launched in December 2019. This was the sixth time the New Shepard vehicle had been to space carrying a dummy passenger aboard and landing back on Earth safely. Humans are yet to fly the New Shepard to space, however.
Who will ultimately win this new space race? And what progress could be made if the two billionaires overcame their differences and joined forces on this?
The entrepreneurs have proven their resilience in determination, be it to weather a pandemic or to build a spaceship. The competition is driving them forward, but instead of bickering over Twitter and in interviews, they could have the world watching and holding its breath as they take to the stars.
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