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Space race

Battle of the billionaires

Matthew Staver/Adrian Dennis/Patrick T Fallon/Getty Images

The new space race has begun. On Sunday, 70-year-old Richard Branson (worth $3.79bn) soared 53.4 miles above the Earth on one of his Virgin Galactic rocket planes. The firm already has $85m in deposits for places on future flights, with tickets starting at $200,000. Not to be outdone, says Samuel Fishwick in the Evening Standard, Jeff Bezos ($207.9bn) will go up seven miles higher next Tuesday – his Blue Origin space company jibed on Twitter that Branson didn’t quite make it to space proper. Bezos wants to set up “space colonies” dotted around the solar system, and has a habit of whipping out mock-ups of medieval Florence and Beijing’s Forbidden City rebuilt in the stars.

Elon Musk ($161.6bn), meanwhile, has his sights set on colonising Mars – he has joked he wants to die on the red planet, “just not on impact”. His SpaceX rockets are already making millions ferrying satellites into orbit and astronauts to the International Space Station. Musk is buddies with Branson – he has bought a Virgin Galactic ticket, and showed up unannounced at Branson’s house at 3am on Sunday to wish him luck. The pair are much less chummy with Bezos, says Jackie Wattles in CNN: Branson seems to have brought forward his own flight to beat the Amazon founder. Musk has contented himself with tweeting that Bezos “Can’t get it up (to orbit)”, and photoshopping Bezos’s “Blue Moon” spacecraft to read “Blue Balls”.

It’s all just a “three-way pissing match”, says Luke Savage in Jacobin. The first space tourism took place 20 years ago, when American millionaire Dennis Tito paid $20m to travel to the International Space Station. What is new is that space is becoming a theatre for the superrich’s bad taste – it’s that or buy “yachts that contain other yachts”, similar to what Bezos has already done. As “temperatures scorch and billions remain unvaccinated”, Branson’s jaunt felt like “a springtime orgy at the Palace of Versailles” before the French Revolution.

It’s true space flight isn’t much use at the moment, says Megan McArdle in The Washington Post. But it took decades for automobiles and aeroplanes to become more than a rich man’s toy or a publicity stunt. We’re the heirs of adventurers and pioneers “who were willing to dare despite the odds”. Branson and co don’t have Nasa’s budget, but market pressures will drive the kind of “incremental innovation” that transformed the Wright brothers’ contraptions into a Boeing 737. Today’s doubters are like those who stood on the shore as the first ocean voyagers departed, complaining about the waste of “a lot of perfectly good wood”.