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3 Billionaires in forefront of privatizing space exploration

SPACE EXPLORATION | 01 de octubre de 2019

Journalist and author Christian Davenport - EFE in an interview on Sept. 30, 2019, in Washington, DC - discussed how billionaires Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson are in the forefront of space exploration by the private sector. EFE-EPA/ Jorge Bañales

By Jorge A. Bañales

Washington, Oct 1 (efe-epa).- After amassing fortunes amounting to tens of billions of dollars, magnates Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson have turned to their "real passion" by getting involved in space exploration, which the US government is starting to move away from funding.

The private sector is seeking to make space "more accessible," going beyond what NASA has done to date, said journalist and writer Christian Davenport in an interview with EFE, referring to the US space agency.

Davenport, who covers the space and defense industries for The Washington Post, is the author of "Space Barons," for which he interviewed Bezos, the founder of Amazon; Musk, the creator of Tesla and PayPal; and Branson, who founded the Virgin Group.

In addition, Davenport spoke with Paul Allen, who was Bill Gates' partner in creating Microsoft.

A Different, Cheaper Model

Space travel remains "very expensive," said Davenport, and so what the private sector is developing is a new model for exploring the off-Earth zone, especially with the idea of making it more affordable, and even accessible to the public.

Until very recently, space exploration has been enormously expensive and has been paid for exclusively by the federal government.

However, now private firms are developing reusable rockets to ferry equipment and personnel into orbit, thus cutting the cost of leaving Earth.

Of course, NASA had the space shuttle program as its flagship mission from 1981-2011, reusing several space shuttles for 135 missions to build the International Space Station, a project costing $100 billion and participated in by 15 countries.

However, NASA announced that it will end its participation in the ISS in 2024 and in the face of this "withdrawal" the private sector is presenting alternatives to keep the US in space.

The two rivals in the space sector that receive the most attention in Davenport's book are Musk, with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), founded in 2002; and Bezos, with Blue Origin, established in 2000.

The two moguls say their reusable rockets will bring costs down substantially and allow the development of "space tourism."

Even Branson's Virgin Galactic has suggested that a trip into near orbit could be available for about $250,000 to interested - and wealthy - people, while it costs NASA about $50 million to send humans into orbit.

Possible Futures

The vision of the "space barons" over the long term is being guided by the technologies that their companies develop, Davenport said.

"I think people would tell you that they don't know, frankly, what the purpose is or what they would find, in fact that's the whole point of exploring" during future private missions to the Moon or Mars, said Davenport.

There are a few things that they do know, however. "On the South Pole of the Moon, we now know that there is a lot of water in the form of ice ... Water is hydrogen and oxygen, and that ... can be used for rocket fuel," he said.

Davenport said that the magnates are taking a long-term look at the future of humanity, noting that Earth has limited resources and an ever-growing population. "Musk talks about if (a) big catastrophe befall(s) Earth, all our eggs are ... in this one basket, and so that's why he wants to (colonize) Mars, to ... have a ... Plan B. That's his ultimate goal."

"What Richard Branson wants to do with his company, Virgin Galactic, is build a spaceship ... that goes up just past the edge of space ... and then comes back down. And that could be seen ... as a plaything for the rich ... It's sort of the ultimate vacation," he said.

"Others would say that if you have that experience, if you get away from Earth, and you see Earth from space - astronauts talk about how profound that is - ... how we're on Earth all together," he said, adding that Bezos' argument is that our Plan B should be to take care of this planet rather than focus on colonizing new worlds.

The Privatization of Space Exploration Still Needs Regulation

Davenport says that space exploration has brought benefits for all mankind, but with the participation of the private sector in space activities new legislation is required.

For instance, space tourism has very few regulations governing either protecting people or property.

"What the private sector wants to do in space is, first and foremost, make getting to space more accessible. They want to make it more affordable and they want to do it efficiently," Davenport said.

He went on to say that with private sector development of commercial space, or near-space travel, a flight from New York to Madrid - which currently takes six hours in a passenger jet - could be done in just an hour with a passenger space vehicle.

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