A Big Win for Elon Musk and SpaceX

The new battle of the billionaires isn’t taking place on the internet. It isn’t a race for who can become the king of commerce. The new battle — this one between Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos — is taking place in space.

Jeff Bezos might have won a few of the initial skirmishes, but the latest victory belongs to Musk. Back in 2016, Blue Origin, the space-exploration company founded by Bezos, made history by launching a rocket that blasted into space, then returned and landed. Bezos made the original observation that it’s a waste of millions in funding to create rockets that can only be used once. By making reusable hardware, Bezos reasoned, the price of space travel would be considerably lower.

Elon Musk and his company took that idea and have built on it. Their prototype Starship was designed to be fully reusable in sending cargo, satellites, and even people to space. It’s partially this ingenuity that handed Musk his first big win in this newest space race.

SpaceX and Blue Origin went head-to-head in competition for a lucrative and important contract from the U.S. Air Force. In 2018, amidst growing tensions between the United States and Russia, the space program announced that it would be phasing out the use of Russian-made rockets. This started a competition to see who could design the replacements. Both Blue Origin and SpaceX put in their bids, but it was SpaceX that came out on top.

The Air Force chose SpaceX’s Falcon rockets for one of the two awarded contracts. Starting in 2022 and lasting for five years, these contracts are worth more than $600 million. The other winner was United Launch Alliance, a combined venture from Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

The CEO of Blue Origin expressed his disappointment at losing out on the contract, but that doesn’t mean they’ve given up. United Launch Alliance uses Blue Origin technology — the BE-4 engine — for their rockets. Blue Origin is also working on project Blue Moon, a moon lander with a planned ready date of 2024.

Meanwhile, Musk and SpaceX are moving full-speed ahead with plans for new iterations of the Starship rocket. They plan to do multiple small “hop” launches to gather important data. This should allow them to keep improving the rocket.

The company is also building more than 120 satellites each month with plans to launch a network of thousands into space. This network, dubbed Starlink, would give high-speed internet access to even the most isolated corners of the world. The FCC licensed the program in 2018. So far, SpaceX has invested more than $70 million in the development and production of user terminals alone.

It all leads back to Musk’s ultimate goal: colonizing Mars. The entrepreneur wants to launch travelers to the red planet by 2024. As to how these colonizers would survive in Mars’ thin atmosphere with no electromagnetic field, that has yet to be determined. Musk has even suggested bombarding Mars with nuclear missiles until its ice reserves melt, releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Musk’s dream of colonizing Mars might not be as close as he thinks, but it’s a dream that’s pushing SpaceX to innovate. With some friendly competition from Bezos and Blue Origin, realistic space travel is closer than it’s ever been.

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