The Silicon Valley Space Race
Your grandkids may one day be waking up in space — Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson want to get them there
Unpopular opinion: the Star Wars movies are kind of overrated.
Now wait, before 95% of you click away, hear me out. I understand they were marvels of filmmaking when they first came out, and hold up to this day (except for the part where Leia kisses Luke to get at Han — 😬😬)
But Star Wars paints a picture of an advanced multi-planetary civilization, where interplanetary travel is commonplace and alliances are formed between galaxies, not countries.
Star Wars might take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but that vision might end up a reality in our future sooner than you think.
We’ve been obsessed with space since foreeeever.
It holds an important place in numerous ancient world mythologies, it governed the lives of entire civilizations, detailed astronomical records have been kept since the 6th century, and its where the aliens who built the pyramids came from.
(One of these things is not true, and I’ll let you decide which one)
The urge to explore space really started picking up speed between the 1950s and 1970s as a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, also known as the “space race”.
A proxy of the Cold War, the space race was a time in history where both nations were trying to one-up each other in terms of their aerospace capabilities.
The Soviets launched three satellites, Sputnik I-III. The U.S. then founded NASA. The Soviets put Yuri Gagarin in orbit. Then the U.S. put John Glenn in orbit. It was like watching a billion dollar ping-pong game between two ridiculously powerful players.
Then, on July 16, 1969, they put a man on the moon, creating one of my favourite photographs of all time.
I skipped a few steps in between, but that should give you a general idea. The space race was a time of unprecedented growth in technology and innovation — the U.S. hadn’t even solved racism and they put a man on the moon!
Space exploration had lost some of its hype in the following years, like Supreme merch or video rental. But especially in the U.S., interest in it is growing once more, like Will Smith or country music.
We’re living in the age of the 21st-century space race, but this time it’s not between nations — it’s between Silicon Valley tech titans. And, you know, a British mogul.
Houston, it’s getting kinda crowded down here…
It’s no secret that overpopulation is an issue, but for many in the developed world, it can be difficult to imagine its gravity (pun fully intended).
Overpopulation can be linked to numerous other global crises, including food shortages, pandemic diseases, and poverty. As global temperatures and sea levels rise, we’re going to see more and more climate refugees, increasing population density all over the world.
By 2050, the population is projected to be at 9.3 billion. By that time, my generation is going to have to take care of the world. I can’t even keep Duo the Duolingo Owl happy — how the heck am I going to take care of almost 10 billion humans!?
We’re running out of space (pun fully intended×2)
Luckily, there’s more space in space. Space exploration is no longer a pipe dream of an enthusiastic American in the 1960s or George Lucas —
Colonizing other planets may be our only shot at survival as a species.
Whilst the public sector (NASA) has been visibly slower at turning this vision into a reality, the private sector is keen on being the leaders of the Space Age.
Meet our contestants…
The tech mogul who’s most in the news right now is probably Mark Zuckerberg, but Facebook has thus far not announced any plans to colonize Mars. (Although, I would pay to see a version of The Social Network set in space — The Spatial Network?)
We’re concerned with the Bald Billionaire, the Eccentric Entrepreneur, and the Monarchical Mogul — okay yeah, I know that one’s a stretch.
Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Sir Richard Branson are some of the entrepreneurs who are leading the way to commercial space exploration. Are they all based in Silicon Valley? Technically no, but “Silicon Valley Space Race” is a sexier title so roll with me on this one.
Here’s an overview of each of their plans, and for my own amusement, I’m also going to give their stats as if they were boxers/Pokemon about to battle:
Jeff Bezos: Blue Origin
Record: 85 acquisitions — 0
Nicknames: The Bald Billionaire, The Seattle Southpaw, Jeff Bozo (that one was created by Donald Trump)
Special Abilities: One-day shipping (for Prime members only) and also LITERALLY ANYTHING he’s the richest man alive.
Most people associate Jeff Bezos with e-commerce mega giant Amazon, but Blue Origin is a separate endeavour entirely. However, that doesn’t mean I’m not crossing my fingers in the hopes that my copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey gets delivered by an Amazon rocket within 9 minutes of ordering — there’s something ironic about that, but I can’t tell what…
I digress. Blue Origin was founded by Bezos in 2000, and although he isn’t the CEO, he recently unveiled plans for space colonization that would have made Jules Verne proud.
At a Washington DC event this May, he outlined an ambitious vision of the future of the human species (I actually get to write that sentence, these are crazy times). Bezos talks about massive, floating colonies in space that can sustain agricultural land, residential areas, even recreational space.
“This is Maui on its best day all year long. No rain, no storms, no earthquakes”
- Jeff Bezos
Yeah. I’m down. Bezos isn’t pretending that this is going to happen in our lifetime, but he’s hoping that young people (like me!) carry on the torch and make it happen.
However, he fully intends on setting up the infrastructure to make that process easier — here are some other projects Blue Origin is working on:
- Blue Moon: a lunar lander that the company is planning on using deliver infrastructure payloads to the moon’s surface. Also this:
“The larger variant of Blue Moon has been designed to land an ascent vehicle that will allow us to return Americans to the Moon by 2024”
- Blue Origin website
So yeah, they want to put people on the moon at the same time as NASA.
- New Glenn: this massive (over 90 ft tall) orbital launch vehicle is meant to “pave the road to space” and will feature a reusable first stage that’s said to be good for a minimum of 25 uses. Not to mention it’s supposed to liftoff at the historic Cape Canaveral.
Elon Musk: SpaceX
Record: Sold 35,000 hats, 20,000 flamethrowers, and also started 3+ billion dollar companies
Nickname: The Eccentric Entrepreneur, The Pretorian Pounder, The Fighting Futurist (but only to close friends)
Special Abilities: Pissing off the SEC, literally turning his thoughts into reality — and he’s got mad tweet game.
Elon Musk (@elonmusk) | Twitter
The latest Tweets from Elon Musk (@elonmusk): “And I am forever grateful https://t.co/kU1pT8t0yv"
Not many people come close to a real-life Tony Stark, but I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see Elon Musk flying around in a super-powered suit of armour fighting aliens on Mars someday — all electrically powered, of course.
Musk is known for a variety of reasons — hardcore meming, beefing with the SEC, as well as being kind of extremely brilliant. However, we should probably add to that list the audacity to colonize Mars.
The entrepreneur has often stated that he believes colonizing other planets, specifically Mars, is the only way the human species can survive in the long term. But he also has a grander vision…
“I think fundamentally the future is vastly more exciting and interesting if we’re a spacefaring civilization and a multiplanet species than if we’re or not. You want to be inspired by things. You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great. And that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about.”
- Elon Musk
Colonizing Mars because you think it would be cool is a pretty baller move and I’m here for it. And Musk is far from just talk — here are some of the things SpaceX has already accomplished:
- Falcon 9: reusable rockets may seem like the standard now since everyone’s working on them, but when SpaceX achieved the world’s first reflight of an orbital class rocket, it was huge. They flew a cargo resupply for NASA in 2016, then flew the same first stage in 2017.
- Falcon Heavy: with the ability to carry 64 metric tons, this is currently the most powerful rocket on the planet. With its first stage boasting 27 engines and 3 cores, Falcon Heavy can achieve 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff — that’s a lot of thrust. Oh yeah, and the dummy payload was a $200,00 Tesla Roadster.
Richard Branson: Virgin Galactic
Record: Pledging $3 billion towards climate change over the next 10 years. That’s it. That’s the record.
Nickname: That’s Sir Richard Branson, thank you very much.
Special Abilities: Not wearing ties, charisma, and finding lost treasure. (I don’t know that last one for sure; I just assume it’s true because he’s got a cool jacket)
Virgin Galactic, the U.S. based spaceflight arm of the Virgin Group, is slightly different from the others on this list in the sense that it’s more focused on touring space than colonizing it — which I suppose is slightly ironic considering Virgin is British…
Shade to imperialism aside, Sir Richard Branson is a true testament to what an entrepreneur can accomplish by leveraging the skills they have. Branson’s goal is to democratize space exploration, which is a fancy way of saying space tourism, which is likely more in-reach (in the near future) than interplanetary colonization. Here’s what they’re working on:
- SpaceShipTwo: part of their VSS Unity system, SpaceShipTwo achieved suborbital flight last December, with two pilots, four NASA research payloads, and a mannequin stand-in for a passenger. Reports say her name is Annie.
- Celebrity Buzz: not a technological feat, awesome nonetheless. Leonardo DiCaprio and Justin Bieber, among other celebrities, have already put down deposits to fly Virgin Galactic’s 90-minute, $250,000 spaceflight.
A few years ahead, in this galaxy right here…
These guys have faced a lot of criticism over the past for years for having their heads in the clouds (pun×3, kapow), as men living out their childhood fantasies. It makes sense — there are more pressing issues on the planet, like climate change and hunger.
I think there’s a lot of ways to save our world. One of them may just be expanding it. If people living out their fantasies is going to ensure the survival of the human race, I’m more than willing to accept it.
If this space race can foster innovation as rapidly as the last one did, we should all be excited. There’s a certain drama, a certain excitement to being a spacefaring species, a space-opera if you will — and I think that’s pretty amazing.
You know, maybe I do like Star Wars after all.
Thanks for making it to the end of my article! This was a lot of fun to write, and a bit different from my usual style. Here’s what to do next: