In the span of just 66 years, the world saw the first crewed airplane flight and the first lunar landing. Now, three enterprising billionaires have made it their missions to get humanity into space.
The 21st century space race is no longer between countries, but between three private space industry companies: Elon Musk's SpaceX, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.
All three companies are pushing the boundaries of humanity's reach beyond Earth. While they may seem variations on the same theme, each company has its own achievements and goals for the future.
In 2002, Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies Corp., more commonly known as SpaceX. He is also the CEO of electric car company Tesla. Since 2002, SpaceX has acquired several firsts in space exploration.
- 2008 -- The Falcon 1 rocket became the first of its type to reach orbit.
- 2010 -- SpaceX became the first private company to successfully launch, operate and recover a spacecraft with its Dragon craft.
- 2012 -- Dragon became the first spacecraft launched by a private company to make it to the International Space Station (ISS).
- 2020 -- Starlink, a project to deliver satellite broadband worldwide, became the largest satellite constellation ever.
- 2020 -- The Crew Dragon spacecraft sent NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the ISS, representing the first crewed launch from the United States since 2011.
On Sept. 16, 2021, SpaceX achieved another milestone involving manned flight with the launch of its Dragon Resilience craft. For two days, Resilience traveled in low Earth orbit at a height of approximately 363 miles above the Earth's surface, making it the fifth-highest manned orbital spaceflight in history and the first orbital spaceflight with no professional astronauts aboard. The crew did undergo astronaut training at SpaceX facilities, but they were otherwise private citizens.
SpaceX seeks to expand its reach beyond Earth and the ISS. It touts its Starship program -- made up of the Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket -- as the most powerful launch vehicle ever developed. It can carry more than 100 metric tons of crew and cargo to the moon, Mars and beyond. In April 2021, NASA selected Starship to carry its astronauts and equipment to the moon as part of its 2025 Artemis initiative. In December 2021, construction of the Starship orbital launch pad began at the Kennedy Space Center.
SpaceX also has goals of uncrewed Mars landings in 2024 and crewed missions in 2026. From there, shuttles could "planet hop" by refueling on Mars and traveling to farther moons and planets. The eventual goal is to reach the edge of space and the outer reaches of our solar system.
SpaceX has also faced some challenges. In November 2021, a toilet failure left four astronauts reliant on "undergarments" when they discovered the urine storage system was defective. Later that month, Musk warned employees via email that the Raptor rocket motor used to power the Starship craft is behind in development, and the company could face bankruptcy if Starship cannot launch at least once every two weeks in 2022.
SpaceX primarily uses four launch sites: Boca Chica, Texas; Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida; Kennedy Space Center in Florida (from which the first crewed mission to the ISS launched); and Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
Blue Origin's ultimate goal is to preserve Earth and humanity's future by obtaining new energy sources and material resources from throughout the solar system. It also aims to make space travel accessible to private citizens traveling as paying customers.
On July 20, 2021, Blue Origin conducted its first crewed launch in its New Shepard rocket. On board were Bezos and his brother, Mark Bezos, as well as the youngest and oldest individuals to reach space at that time -- Oliver Daemen, 18, and Wally Funk, 82. In October 2021, actor William Shatner -- who was 90 at the time -- became the oldest person to reach outer space.
Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket -- named for NASA astronaut John Glenn -- is expected to launch for the first time in 2022. Other Blue Origin launch plans include the Blue Moon, a lunar lander capable of carrying a total weight of 7,900 pounds to the moon.
But one of the company's most unique ventures is Orbital Reef -- a business park in low Earth orbit. The park, announced in October 2021, is to be used for space transportation and habitation for both research and commercial customers. Blue Origin plans to have the park operational by the mid-to-late 2020s.
Blue Origin primarily launches from its own facilities near Seattle and Kent, Wash., and near Van Horn, Texas. In 2017, the company completed work on a launch vehicle production facility south of Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In February 2020, it opened a new facility in Huntsville, Ala., where it will manufacture its largest engine, the BE-4.
Virgin Galactic is the youngest of the three aerospace companies, first beginning operations in 2004. In July 2021, Branson became the first of the three space tourism pioneers to reach space, along with his crew of three Galactic employees -- Sirisha Bandla, Colin Bennett and Beth Moses -- and the craft's pilots -- Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci.
Galactic hopes to begin launching commercial flights in 2022. The ticket price includes custom-made flight suits and two-day flight training at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Spaceport America opened in October 2010 and is currently Galactic's only location. However, the company previously announced plans for a facility in the California desert and has expressed interest in opening a European hub at Spaceport Sweden or Scotland's Royal Air Force Lossiemouth station.
Unlike Blue Origin and SpaceX, Galactic's goals are focused more on suborbital space experiences rather than research and travel to the moon and other planets. The company does have additional goals, including a supersonic transport airliner being developed to fly at Mach 3. This means it would be able to fly from New York to London in about two hours -- faster than the now-retired Concorde.
Read more here about Mach speeds.
In November 2021, Galactic's CEO, Michael Colglazier, said the company plans to start flying its VSS Unity craft once per month beginning in late 2022. The space flights will then ramp up to three flights per month in the latter half of 2023.