Richard Branson with a Virgin Galactic space aircraft at the company’s Mojave desert headquarters.© The Observer Richard Branson with a Virgin Galactic space aircraft at the company’s Mojave desert headquarters. The explosion could be felt 30 miles away. At 9.07am on 1 September, a SpaceX rocket containing 75,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene ignited into a fireball that could be seen from orbit, billowing black smoke into the gray sky around its Cape Canaveral launch pad.
On board was a $200m, 12,000lb communications satellite – part of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org project to deliver broadband access to sub-Saharan Africa.
Zuckerberg wrote, with a note of bitterness, on his Facebook page that he was “deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX’s launch failure destroyed our satellite”. SpaceX founder Elon Musk told CNN it was the “most difficult and complex failure” the 14-year-old company had ever experienced.
It was also the second dramatic explosion in nine months for SpaceX, following a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” of a booster rocket as it attempted to land after a successful mission to the International Space Station.
Later that day, Nasa’s official Twitter account responded: “Today’s @SpaceX incident – while not a Nasa launch – reminds us that spaceflight is challenging.”

They were geeks raised on science fiction and a 60s and 70s vision of space. Now they have money to make this a reality. - Ashlee Vance, tech author
Yet despite those challenges, a small band of billionaire technocrats have spent the past few years investing hundreds of millions of dollars into space ventures. Forget gilded mansions and super yachts; among the tech elite, space exploration is the ultimate status symbol.
Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002, is arguably the most visible billionaire in the new space race. The apparent inspiration for Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark character in Iron Man, Musk has become a god-like figure for engineers, making his fortune at PayPal and then as CEO of luxury electric car firm Tesla and clean energy company Solar City. Yet it is his galactic ambitions, insiders say, that really motivate him. “His passion is settling Mars,” says one.
SpaceX has completed 32 successful launches since 2006, delivered cargo to the International Space Station and secured more than $10bn in contracts with Nasa and other clients. Musk has much grander ambitions, though, saying he plans to create a “plan B” for humanity in case Earth ultimately fails. He once famously joked that he hoped to die on Mars – just not on impact.


The alternative to extinction is to become ‘multi-planetary’
Musk has outlined an ambitious timeline for colonizing the red planet, which he said could begin as soon as 2022. Speaking to the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico in September, Musk described a 400-foot-tall rocket that would ferry 100 colonists at a time to Mars over a period of decades.
“One [path] is that we stay on Earth forever and then there will be an inevitable extinction event,” he told the audience of scientists and engineers. “The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilization, and a multi-planetary species.”
Ashlee Vance, longtime tech journalist and author of Elon Musk: Tesla, Space, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, thinks these ambitions are driven by a mix of entrepreneurial curiosity, altruism and a dash of egotism. “The guys who are rulers of the universe now are the nerds,” he says. “They were all geeks raised on science fiction and the vision of space we had in the 1960s and 70s. Now they have the money to make this a reality.”
And no one more so than Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his estimated fortune of $67bn. Blue Origin, which he founded in 2000 and kept secret until 2006, has also unveiled plans for its New Glenn launch vehicle, a 270ft rocket capable of carrying passengers to Mars. The company has made a dozen test launches, including October’s test of the in-flight escape system for the unashamedly phallic New Shepard rocket.
Blue Origin landed a small contract with Nasa to conduct suborbital research missions in June 2015, but has yet to complete a commercial flight. In June 2016, Bezos told reporters Blue Origin would begin test flights carrying humans next year. He ends many of his emails and tweets with the Blue Origin motto “Gradatim Ferociter” – “Step by step, ferociously”.


Altruism, or egotism?
At a conference in June, Bezos compared the new space industry to the early days of the internet – likening it to how the fiber optic cable laid for voice communications in the 1960s and 1970s ultimately paved the way for today’s data-driven economy.
“I’m building infrastructure the hard way,” he said. “I’m using my resources to put in place heavy lifting infrastructure … so that future generations of entrepreneurs can have a solar system as dynamic and interesting and varied as what we see on the internet today.”
Bezos is interested in an unlimited future economy where much of our manufacturing takes place in space, sparing Earth from pollution. “You go to space to save Earth,” Bezos said. “We have sent robotic probes all over the solar system. Let me assure you, this is the best planet.”
Bezos and Musk have developed an intense personal rivalry, says Ashlee Vance. “As time has gone on and these companies have been successful, ambitions have grown. Musk and Bezos used to be cordial, but they’re vicious now.”
In 2013, SpaceX and Blue Origin fought over control of a Nasa launch pad and a patent for landing rockets at sea; Musk won both tussles. When Blue Origin tried to block SpaceX from using the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Musk emailed Space News slamming the company and questioning its ability to build a rocket that would meet Nasa standards. “We are more likely to discover unicorns dancing in the flame duct,” Musk wrote.
After a successful Blue Origin test launch and landing in November 2015, Bezos used his first ever tweet to boast about “the rarest of beasts – a used rocket”. Musk replied: “Not quite ‘rarest’. SpaceX Grasshopper did 6 suborbital flights 3 years ago & is still around”.
One month later Bezos threw a little shade back at Musk, after a SpaceX Falcon rocket duplicated Blue Origin’s feat of achieving a vertical landing of its reusable rocket: “Congrats @spaceX on landing Falcon’s suborbital booster stage. Welcome to the Club!”
Whether driven by a desire to do good or simply to burnish their legacy ultimately doesn’t matter, says Hannah Kerner, executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation, a non-profit that promotes human settlement in space. “Altruism and egotism are the same thing,” she says. “When people are feeling altruistic, they feel important. The same thing happens when they feel like they’re having an impact on society. They want to be seen as the ones who made a difference.”

As time has gone on, ambitions have grown. Musk and Bezos used to be cordial, but they’re vicious now. - Ashlee Vance, tech author
Spats aside, Musk and Bezos share something else in common: a deep and abiding frustration with the state of space exploration. Like many of us, they assumed that 40 years after man landed on the Moon, humans would be taking vacation cruises into space and establishing colonies on Mars.
The reality, however, was much more down to Earth. Instead of sending humans to explore the heavens, Nasa sent unmanned probes to fly by planets. Much of its budget went to the International Space Station and the space shuttle for ferrying supplies and astronauts. The US space program began to look less like Star Trek and more like a really expensive interplanetary UPS.


Make space exploration cheaper
The main barrier was cost. Emerging from Earth’s gravitational field and punching through the atmosphere is an expensive proposition. Nasa claims the average cost of a shuttle launch is around $450m, though a 2011 analysis by researchers at the University of Colorado put the figure closer to $1.5bn. All told, the 30-year space shuttle program cost nearly $200bn before it was shuttered in July 2011.
To make space a viable destination for private companies and individuals, the costs have to be dramatically reduced. Enter Silicon Valley’s billionaire space explorers, who hope to disrupt the traditional aerospace industry with entrepreneurialism and modern manufacturing techniques.
Musk and Bezos are trying to save tens of millions of dollars by reusing the hugely expensive launch vehicles, rather than jettisoning them to burn up in the atmosphere. They are right to try and solve that problem, says Dr Sean Casey, managing director of the Silicon Valley Space Center, an incubator for new space start-ups. “No one flies a 747 to Europe, lands the plane, and then just grinds it up. Those planes last 40 years. The space industry is the only one that grinds up its vehicles.”
SpaceX prices its Falcon 9 rocket at around $60m per launch. The larger Falcon Heavy, which can reach higher orbits, is priced at $90m. Neither figure includes savings gained by re-using them. SpaceX has successfully recovered six rockets it fired into orbit, but has yet to send any of them up a second time. SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell has said the price of a Falcon 9 launch could drop another 30% when the booster is re-used.
Privately held Blue Origin has not publicly stated what its launches will cost, and declined to comment.

Altruism and egotism are the same thing. They want to be seen as the ones who made a difference. - Hannah Kerner, executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and British tycoon Richard Branson are taking a different approach. In June 2015, Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace unveiled the world’s largest plane – the Stratolauncher. With a 385 feet (107 meters) wingspan, it can carry 1,000lb (454kg) satellites to high altitude and launch them into low Earth orbit. Vulcan has not released estimates on what its flights will cost, though a spokesperson for the company says it hopes to be fully operational by the end of the decade.
Branson’s Virgin Galactic launched in 2004, promoting short suborbital flights to civilians in the hopes of creating a space tourism industry. More than 700 passengers have already paid around $250,000 for advance tickets for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two, reportedly including Tom Hanks, Ashton Kutcher and Leonardo DiCaprio, though the date of the first commercial flight has not been announced. Using the same carrier aircraft, it also plans plans to deliver small, 200lb (91kg) satellites. The cost is around $10m, or one-sixth the cost of a SpaceX flight, but it has not announced when either service will be available.
Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner – named after Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space – has a different approach. In April 2015 he announced $100m investment for research into using lasers to fling tiny robots towards the stars at one-fifth the speed of light. The Digital Sky Technologies founder hopes his Breakthrough Starshot initiative will develop spacecraft that can reach Alpha Centauri, the closest star to our solar system, within 20 years.
If success in the earthbound technology industry is hard to obtain, in space it’s literally a long shot. Though the vast majority of SpaceX flights have been successful, it’s the disasters that give shareholders pause and makes potential passengers nervous. (The company recently completed its investigation into the cause of the September launch pad explosion, and says the next Falcon 9 mission will likely take place next month.)
In space exploration, hyperbole often overtakes reality. George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company, told the Guardian in 2014 that the company was little more than a marketing organization before 2010, and now it’s able to design and build its own rockets.
But it is very early days. The 700-odd passengers who coughed up serious coin for tickets into suborbit are still waiting, six years after Branson initially predicted Virgin Galactic would take flight. As of writing, Blue Origin’s rockets have not yet made it into orbit. The Stratolauncher won’t be fully operation for several years, and it may take decades before anyone designs a system that can propel man-made objects through space fast enough to reach a star over a human being’s lifespan, if it happens at all.
Simon “Pete” Worden, former director of Nasa’s Ames Research Center, is known as Silicon Valley’s “space guy”. He’s had many extended discussions with Musk about his space ambitions, as well as the rest of the space elite. Each has a sci-fi geek’s passion for space, he says, but their practical motivations are all slightly different.
“For Elon, this is really what he wanted to do with his life. His passion is settling Mars. Yuri is driven by questions about life in the universe: Are we alone? Is there life elsewhere? Bezos is interested in an unlimited future economy where much of our manufacturing takes place in space. And it’s pretty clear to me Branson has got stars in his eyes. He likes the idea of sending people into space. I don’t think he’s doing Virgin Galactic to make a lot of money.”
For ambitious entrepreneurs and would-be world changers, Earth is last year’s news. Space is the place they want to be.