Jeff Bezos (top), Richard Branson (middle) and Elon Musk (bottom), widely seen as the main competitors of the billionaire space race[1]

The billionaire space race[2][3][4][5] is the rivalry among entrepreneurs who have entered the space industry from other industries - particularly computing.[6][7] This private spaceflight race involves sending privately developed rockets and vehicles to various destinations in space, often in response to government programs or to develop the space tourism sector.[8]

Since 2018 the billionaire space race has primarily been between three billionaires and their respective firms:

Prior to his death in 2018, Paul Allen was also a major player in the billionaire space race through the aerospace division of his firm Vulcan and his financing of programs such as Scaled Composites Tier One. Allen sought to reduce the cost of launching payloads into orbit.[4][9][5]


The groundwork for the billionaire space race and private spaceflight was arguably laid by Peter Diamandis, an American entrepreneur. In the 1980s, he founded an American national student space society, the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS). Later, Jeff Bezos became a chapter president of SEDS. In the 1990s, Diamandis, disappointed with the state of space development, decided to spur it on and spark the suborbital space tourism market, by initiating a prize, the X Prize. This led to Paul Allen becoming involved in the competition, creating the Scaled Composites Tier One platform of SpaceShipOne and White Knight One which won the Ansari X-Prize in 2004. The technology of the winning entrant was then licensed by Richard Branson's Virgin Group as a basis to found Virgin Galactic. The base techniques of Tier One also form the basis for Stratolaunch Systems (formerly of Vulcan Aerospace).[10][8] Elon Musk's SpaceX was established in 2002, last among the three main rivals. Speaking at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and without reference to private spaceflight Elon Musk expressed excitement for a new space race in 2018.[11]

Government programs have also fuelled the billionaire space race. NASA programs such as the Commercial Crew Program (created in 2010, with grants mostly won by SpaceX and partially by Blue Origin) and the Artemis HLS program (awarded to SpaceX in 2021 and also to Blue Origin in 2023) have pushed the billionaires to compete against each other to be selected for those multi-billion dollar procurement programs. The competition has also resulted in court battles such as Blue Origin v. United States & SpaceX. Those government programs have provided critical funding for the new private space industry and its development.[12]

As of January 2024 SpaceX is the only private spaceflight company that has actually launched a payload into orbit.

Major milestones

Main article: Timeline of private spaceflight


The critical response to space tourism has lambasted billionaire founders (e.g., Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos), downplayed their achievement, and questioned their environmental, financial, and social/ethical practices. This discursive contention is sharply opposed to dominant narratives which typically frame space tourism as a net positive for humankind.[15]


SpaceX vs. Blue Origin

SpaceX and Blue Origin have had a long history of conflict.[5][7] Blue Origin and SpaceX have had dueling press releases that compete with each other's announcements and events.[16][17]

SpaceX and Blue Origin battled for the right to lease LC-39A, the rocket launch platform that was used to launch the Apollo Moon missions. SpaceX won the lease in 2013, but Blue Origin filed suit in court against that. It is currently in the hands of SpaceX, while Blue Origin rented SLC-36 instead.[7]

SpaceX filed suit against Blue Origin to invalidate their patent on landing rockets aboard ships at sea. They won their court fight in 2014. SpaceX had been attempting to land rockets at sea since 2014, finally succeeding in 2016, before Blue Origin first built a sea-going platform for landing rockets.[7]

SpaceX and Blue Origin got into a Twitter battle about the meaning of a used rocket, landed rocket, spacerocket, at the end of 2015, when New Shepard successfully landed, after a suborbital jaunt into space. SpaceX had previously launched and landed its Grasshopper rocket multiple times without reaching space. Then SpaceX landed a Falcon 9 first stage, which had been used to launch a satellite into orbit, prompting more Twitter battles at the start of 2016, such as Bezos tweeting "welcome to the club".[7][18]

In late 2016, Blue Origin announced the New Glenn, directly competing against SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, with a larger rocket but lower payload.[19]

At the 2016 International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson elaborated on the Bezos vision previously outlined in the New Glenn announcement. The Blue Origin New Armstrong would be similar in function to the SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System that Elon Musk unveiled at the same conference.[20]

In April 2021, SpaceX beat Blue Origin to a $2.9 billion dollar contract to build the lunar lander for NASA's Artemis program.[21] In August 2021, Blue Origin subsequently began a legal case against NASA and SpaceX in the Court of Federal Claims, which was dismissed in November of the same year.[22] About two years later in May 2023 NASA awarded Blue Origin a $3.4 billion contract to develop a competing Moon lander, noting that "adding another human landing system partner to NASA’s Artemis program will increase competition, reduce costs to taxpayers, support a regular cadence of lunar landings, further invest in the lunar economy, and help NASA achieve its goals on and around the Moon in preparation for future astronaut missions to Mars."[23][24]

Blue Origin vs. Virgin Galactic

Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are in the same market, suborbital space tourism, with the space capsule New Shepard and the spaceplane SpaceShipTwo, respectively.[25][26][3][1] The two systems made their first flights with multiple passengers within 10 days: SpaceShipTwo flew on July 11, 2021 and New Shepard followed on July 20, both carrying their billionaire founders and a few other passengers. As of July 2023, SpaceShipTwo has made three tourism flights with two pilots and four passengers each while New Shepard has made six flights with six passengers each.

In May of 2023 Richard Branson ended Virgin Orbit in bankruptcy, and then in December of 2023 he announced that he won't invest any more money in Virgin Galactic, having already put one billion dollars into the project, he said that they should have enough money to continue without any more from him.[27]

Former rivalries

Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, was an active early participant in the billionaire space race

Stratolaunch vs. Virgin Orbit

The Stratolaunch rivalries are no longer part of the billionaire space race, after 2019, having been suspended at the time of Paul Allen's death.[9][28] The Stratolaunch company has since continued operations under new ownership, but does not focus on orbital space launches anymore.

Vulcan Aerospace subsidiary Stratolaunch Systems planned to air-launch satellite launcher rockets, the same profile as planned by Virgin Orbit for its LauncherOne operations. While LauncherOne was developed and launch aircraft procured (once White Knight Two, now 747 Cosmic Girl), the Scaled Composites "Roc" Model 351 is still being developed (as of 2022) and the rocket to mate to it (the company has refocused away from orbital spaceflight) has yet to be selected.[29] After the death of Paul Allen in 2018, Stratolaunch was sold, and no longer a billionaire insurgent venture.[9]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Polina Marinova (15 November 2016). "What Billionaire Richard Branson Thinks of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk". Fortune. Time. Archived from the original on 26 February 2019. Retrieved 17 November 2016.
  2. ^ Bernstein, Joshua D. (May 2024). "The billionaire space race: Internet memes and the netizen response to space tourism". Annals of Tourism Research Empirical Insights. 5 (1): 100122. doi:10.1016/j.annale.2024.100122.
  3. ^ a b c d Clive Irving (19 June 2016). "Jeff Bezos Ready to Beat Richard Branson in the Billionaire Space Race". The Daily Beast. Archived from the original on 25 September 2016. Retrieved 24 September 2016.
  4. ^ a b Robert Lafranco (13 April 2015). "Allen and Branson Best Musk as the Billionaire Space Race Takes Off". Bloomberg. Archived from the original on 2019-04-28. Retrieved 2017-08-24.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Charles W. Luzier (17 September 2016). "The great billionaire space race". The Week. Reuters. Archived from the original on 28 April 2019. Retrieved 24 September 2016.
  6. ^ Matthew Lynn (May 2016). "Watch this space: why billionaires are launching extraterrestrial adventures". The Spectator. Archived from the original on 2018-06-14.
  7. ^ a b c d e Christian Davenport (19 August 2016). "The inside story of how billionaires are racing to take you to outer space". Washington Post. Archived from the original on 19 November 2016. Retrieved 24 September 2016.
  8. ^ a b Julian Guthrie (2016). How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight. Penguin Press. ISBN 978-1594206726.
  9. ^ a b c Benjamin Romano; Katherine Anne Long; Brendan Kiley (26 November 2019). "What's happening to Paul Allen's billions? A year after his death, it's complicated". The Seattle Times. Archived from the original on 4 June 2023. Retrieved 18 September 2021.
  10. ^ Vivek Wadhwa (19 September 2016). "The renegade whose dream started the latest space race". Washington Post. Archived from the original on 19 November 2016. Retrieved 24 September 2016.
  11. ^ Alan Yuhas (9 February 2018). "The new space race: how billionaires launched the next era of exploration". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 31 March 2018. Retrieved 1 April 2018.
  12. ^ Ben-Itzhak, Svetla (January 11, 2022). "Companies are commercializing outer space. Do government programs still matter?". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on April 21, 2023. Retrieved July 1, 2023.
  13. ^ Jackie Wattles (11 July 2021). "Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson successfully rockets to outer space". CNN. Archived from the original on 2022-11-13. Retrieved 2021-07-20.
  14. ^ Chang, Kenneth (2021-07-20). "Latest Updates: Bezos and Blue Origin Crew Land After Short Flight to Space". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on 2021-07-21. Retrieved 2021-07-20.
  15. ^ Bernstein, Joshua D. (May 2024). "The billionaire space race: Internet memes and the netizen response to space tourism". Annals of Tourism Research Empirical Insights. 5 (1): 100122. doi:10.1016/j.annale.2024.100122.
  16. ^ Dana Hull (8 March 2017). "SpaceX Will Launch Its First Reused Rocket Later This Month". Bloomberg. Archived from the original on 2017-04-05. Retrieved 2017-04-05.
  17. ^ Rae Paoletta (31 March 2017). "Is Blue Origin's Tourist Capsule Sexier Than SpaceX's?". Gizmodo. Archived from the original on 4 September 2017. Retrieved 9 September 2017.
  18. ^ Bezos, Jeff [@JeffBezos] (December 22, 2015). "Congrats @SpaceX on landing Falcon's suborbital booster stage. Welcome to the club!" (Tweet). Archived from the original on 2021-09-10. Retrieved 2021-09-11 – via Twitter.
  19. ^ Eric Mack (12 September 2016). "Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin to take on SpaceX with supersized rocket New Glenn". cNet news. Archived from the original on 14 September 2016. Retrieved 25 September 2016.
  20. ^ Alan Boyle (27 September 2016). "Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin space venture sets its sights on trips to Mars and the moon". GeekWire. Archived from the original on 28 September 2016. Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  21. ^ Brown, Katherine (2021-04-16). "NASA Picks SpaceX to Land Next Americans on Moon". NASA (Press release). Archived from the original on 2021-04-22. Retrieved 2021-05-02.
  22. ^ Sheetz, Michael (2021-11-04). "Bezos' Blue Origin loses NASA lawsuit over SpaceX $2.9 billion lunar lander contract". CNBC. Archived from the original on 2022-01-04. Retrieved 2023-05-21.
  23. ^ "NASA Selects Blue Origin as Second Artemis Lunar Lander Provider". Archived from the original on 2023-05-19. Retrieved 2023-05-19.
  24. ^ "Bezos' Blue Origin wins NASA astronaut moon lander contract to compete with SpaceX's Starship". CNBC. 19 May 2023. Archived from the original on 19 May 2023. Retrieved May 19, 2023.
  25. ^ Josh Hrala (4 August 2016). "Virgin Galactic is finally licensed to take tourists into space". Science Alert. Archived from the original on 20 September 2016. Retrieved 24 September 2016.
  26. ^ Jackie Wattles (20 June 2016). "Blue Origin successfully crash tests space-tourism capsule". CNN Money. Archived from the original on 8 November 2020. Retrieved 3 August 2020.
  27. ^ Steve Symington (23 December 2023). "No More Cash From Richard Branson: Is This The End For Virgin Galactic?". The Motley Fool. Archived from the original on 8 January 2024. Retrieved 8 January 2024.
  28. ^ Stephen Clark (11 October 2019). "Stratolaunch under new ownership". Spaceflight Now. Archived from the original on 18 September 2021. Retrieved 18 September 2021.
  29. ^ Max Lewontin (20 June 2016). "Paul Allen vs. Elon Musk: a different approach to satellite launches". Christian Science Monitor. Archived from the original on 28 September 2016. Retrieved 25 September 2016.

Further reading