Richard Branson’s space flight was fun. But who is he taking for a ride? – Mother Jones
Hours before flying into space in his own private rocket, billionaire Richard Branson posted a ridiculous video of himself enjoying the moment: The 70-year-old happily pedales a high-performance road bike through an airfield at dawn, flanked by a flawless matching Range. Rovers, and arrives at his own spaceport to greet his fellow space travelers. There was a real joy in the main event of the day, and space travel literally represents the outer limits of what humanity can achieve, but the trip was not just a pleasure or simply for the sake of science, of course.
– Richard Branson (@richardbranson) July 11, 2021
Like billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who recently made headlines for their own privately funded space programs, Branson has a very big business. Branson has been trying for nearly two decades to get a space tourism effort off the ground, catering primarily to people like himself, the extremely wealthy who can afford the $ 250,000 ticket. Bezos and Musk are also listing to space tourism services, though their plans carry colossally higher price tags. To be fair, the other two billionaires are offering to take customers much, much farther than Branson, whose flight only it reached 60 miles above the earth. Musk position $ 55 million to take a passenger to the International Space Station, while Bezos will charge just $ 28 million, but he will also sit next to the paying passenger.
The three billionaires are also chasing higher prizes. Last April, a Virgin Galactic subsidiary of Branson Announced it had won a $ 35 million contract from the Space Force – the newly created space wing of the US military – to carry satellites into low Earth orbit. For their part, both Bezos and Musk seem to be aiming for a total replacement for NASA. Musk’s SpaceX has contracts to deliver supplies to the International Space Station, and Bezos’ Blue Origin has won its own contracts to develop, among other things, a nuclear powered spaceship.
Around the same time that Branson won his satellite contract, NASA awarded Musk’s SpaceX a $ 2.9 billion contract NASA to send a man to the moon, an outsourcing of what was once the most successful technical achievement of the United States government. Musk beat out Bezos for the contract and a handful of defense contractors, who for decades have been the primary recipient of government aerospace contracts.
For all its iconoclasm, prowess, and technical wizardry (SpaceX’s ability to land their booster rockets used on a floating barge it is Remarkable), Musk, Bezos and Branson are achieving their takeover of a government space program in the same way their rivals in the defense industry have always done: lobbying. Bezos is challenging Musk’s big moon landing contract with his own army of lobbyists and the help of his local legislator, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, who has legislation introduced to give NASA money to pay for Blue Origin to have its own moon landing project.
SpaceX has spent at least $ 17.5 million on lobbying the federal government for the past ten years, while Bezos’ space company Blue Origin has spent more modest $ 7 million since he started hiring K Street firms to further his interest in DC (but he has also had the benefit of partnering with defense contractors like Lockheed Martin on some of his endeavors). Virgin pushed a lot harder in the early 2000s as it was fixing its space program (and trying to get a subsidiary of its airline in the US market), but Branson still thrown off a quarter of a million dollars in courting Washington last year.
Eye-catching events like Branson’s flight to the edge of space on Sunday could perhaps be seen in another light as well: This is an elite group of oligarchs seeking to brand themselves as heirs to the taxpayer-funded American space program, with potential profits and all, despite the fact that in recent years they have obtained billions in contracts and subsidies and some have paid zero federal income taxes.