Soaring, Crashing, and Burning: Why The Billionaire Space Race Is A Horrible Idea

Rosa Newshore, Scarlet Staff

At 9:49 a.m. Central Time, on Wednesday, October 13th, the New Shepherd rocket from the commercial space company Blue Origin lifted off from the West Texas desert. In this latest chapter of the new “space tourism” saga, the rocket took four passengers to the edge of space, some 65.8 miles above Earth’s surface, for a trip that lasted approximately ten minutes in total. Among these passengers were Blue Origin employee Audrey Powers, and two paying passengers, Chris Boshuizen and Glen de Vries. Perhaps the most significant on board was William Shatner, best known for his acting role as Captain Kirk on the TV show Star Trek. The man behind the legendary character – widely associated with heroic adventures and space travel – receiving the opportunity to breach the barrier between Earth and Outer Space is undoubtedly an exciting and momentous occasion. However, the context in which this event took place is rife with issues, many of which I am about to unpack.

Let’s start with the background of what has been dubbed “the billionaire space race.” Between the years 2000 and 2004, the commercial side of the space industry kicked off, with Jeff Bezos founding Blue Origin in 2000, Elon Musk creating SpaceX in 2002, and Richard Branson establishing Virgin Galactic in 2004. In the almost twenty years since, SpaceX surged ahead, coming to fame with its advancements in developing new technology. At first, the company just shuttled supplies, but as of May 2020, they now bring astronauts to the International Space Station using reusable rockets. But although they have not been in the spotlight as much, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have also been working on their own projects regarding space flight. In the past few years, this has ignited a fraught competition between them that, with the three “space baron’s” combined net worth of $400 billion, is most definitely “the billionaire space race.” 

In a recent development highlighting the newer rivalry between Bezos and Branson, both billionaires traveled to the edge of space using their company’s technology within nine days of each other this past summer. On July 11th, 2021, Richard Branson, two pilots, and three other passengers flew on SpaceShipTwo to a height of 53.5 miles (86 km) above Earth’s surface. On July 20th‒‒a launch date that was established long before Branson’s was announced‒‒Jeff Bezos flew 65 miles (105 km) into space with three other passengers. Among them was Wally Funk, an eighty-two -year-old former member of the Mercury 13, a group of women who trained to become astronauts but never got the opportunity after being passed over for men. While Bezos traveled aboard New Sheppard, a familiar-looking rocketship and capsule duo, Branson and Virgin Galactic opted for different technology: a winged, rocket-powered space plane called SpaceShipTwo. But no matter their means of getting there, the billionaires’ nearly consecutive journeys into space have marked the beginning of something big, for better or for worse. 

This “something big” is the space tourism business, which will be worth, according to, about three billion by 2030, and will offer the opportunity for civilians to breach the edge of space, experience weightlessness, and one day maybe even take a vacation in a suborbital hotel. After returning to Earth, Richard Branson said everyone should have the opportunity to go to space and see Earth from above, yet all but a select few actually will. According to the New York Times, more than 600 people have already bought tickets for Virgin Galactic flights, the prices of which initially went for between $200,000 and $250,000, though they were later raised to $450,000 in August. In July, Bezos said that Blue Origin was almost at $100 million in ticket sales for their flights, though they neglected to say how many passengers that included. So, as the BBC put it, these flights are essentially “joy-rides for the super-wealthy” and will not be accessible to the ordinary citizen in the foreseeable future. 

That’s not to say jaunts into space should be easily accessible to anyone, for that matter. The billionaires’ ventures with space tourism have drawn criticism for numerous reasons, and there are many issues with it. For one, launching into space, let alone staying in space like the astronauts aboard the International Space Station, is not a walk in a park. There are many dangers and countless things that can go wrong, especially for untrained civilian astronauts. To make matters worse, there is also little oversight nor regulations for commercial space companies as of right now. According to, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires commercial space companies to prove that their operations do not endanger people on the ground. However, they have no oversight or guidelines as to the safety of those participating while actually in space flight. During a test flight in 2014 for SpaceShipTwo, an accident led to the spacecraft ripping apart, leaving the co-pilot dead and the pilot injured. During Branson’s launch back in July, the space plane carrying SpaceShipTwo deviated from its approved course, which could have put the passengers aboard SpaceShipTwo at risk, causing the FAA to ground Virgin Galactic until an investigation is completed. While nothing happened this time, with more space tourist launches potentially happening in the future, who’s to say nothing will? 

Furthermore, while the space barons are pouring money into their out-of-this-world joyrides, there are massive crises back here on Earth‒‒the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, to name just two‒‒that are negatively impacting the entire planet. If any of these billionaires gave just a tiny percentage of their money, it would go a significantly long way toward resolving these problems, but none of them have really done much of anything. 

Finally, there are also concerns about the environmental dangers of unrestricted numbers of commercial launches. According to the BBC’s Science Focus Magazine, the carbon dioxide emissions for four tourists on a space flight are about 100 times more than the emissions per passenger on a long airplane flight‒‒the emissions for which are already an extreme environmental concern. Although the impact will depend on the types of fuels used for the rockets, if the cheap new hybrid fuel that Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo uses becomes popular, the effects on our climate will be detrimental. However, with the numbers of possible space flights in years to come – no matter what fuel the rockets employ – there will still be a significant environmental impact. As if that’s not concern enough, the exhaust from rockets also contains chemicals like nitrogen oxides that can (and do) deplete Earth’s ozone layer. These environmental concerns might not seem like a big deal right now as only a handful of commercial launches have happened so far. But, there are currently no global regulations for the environmental impacts of rocket launches. If no new regulations are enacted in the immediate future, the effects from the space tourism industry will be disastrous for our planet.

There will almost certainly be many negative impacts, but some have pointed out that there is the potential for some positive effects. For example, drawing a comparison to the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the mid twentieth century, new jobs will be created, and new technology developed as a result of the billionaire space race. Also, the billionaires’ visions for their companies, like Musk’s goal to establish a colony on Mars and Bezos’s idea to create space colonies in orbit around Earth, could help drive humanity’s expansion beyond Earth and exploration of outer space. But, anything remotely like colonies on Mars is still nothing but an idea and will not benefit the average person for a long time. The advantages that the billionaire space race could potentially offer pales compared to its negative impacts like its contribution to the global-scale issue of climate change. However exciting it may be, the billionaire space race does not bode well. But how it will turn out in the end, only time will tell.