Billionaires in space: commercial space travel takes over future of industry


Art by Vivian Spear.

Anjali Noel Ramesh

In an ambitious mission starting a new era of commercial space travel, English business magnate Richard Branson, became the first person to launch into space in a craft funded in part by his own money Monday, June 12 2021. Developed by Branson’s space flight company Virgin Galactic, the rocket, named SpaceShipTwo, was manned by a civilian crew and only for commercial purposes. Technically speaking, the craft was a supersonic plane, meaning it reached speeds up to five times that of sound, but no higher, according to SpaceShipTwo reached an altitude of about 50,000 feet, rotated to its belly at maximum height—which allowed passengers to experience two minutes of weightlessness—and touched down back on Earth. 

Branson was part of the unofficial “Billionaire Space Race” between fellow business tycoon’s Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. In a quick turnaround from Branson’s flight, Bezos launched into space aboard his own company’s spacecraft, the New Shepard, just nine days after. Although Musk has not traveled to space himself, his company, SpaceX, sent a crew of four non-astronauts to space Sept. 15, 2021. 

With wealthy, public figures focusing on commercial activity, the space industry is booming in terms of private business related ventures. The vision SpaceX has involves constructing larger bodies of transportation to carry more people at a time, plans to visit the International Space Station (ISS) and settlement building on Mars, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review. With the $209 billion dollar investment Musk has in his company, these claims could quickly become our future, and secure humanity’s place as a spacefaring civilization. 

The future of U.S. astro and aeronautics is as much in the hands of private companies as it is in governmental institutions, if not more. On one hand, institutions such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are focused on technology that will deepen interstellar travel, according to On the other hand, private corporations, like those owned by Branson, Bezos and Musk, are focused on sending more people to space for commercial purposes, as stated by their respective company’s mission statements. 

Although commercial space travel is a massive leap on a technological scale, it’s increased popularity leaves the Earth’s environment at odds. The fuel required for spacecrafts, paired with the emissions created while launching will leave lasting negative impacts on the Earth’s ground-level environment and atmosphere. The result of launching rockets more frequently includes disruption of the ozone layer’s circulation, faster melting of the polar ice caps and decreased air quality, according to an article by the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering. The article stated the black carbon emissions from modern rocket engines are the main reason for most of these effects, meaning more launches would only amplify the damage. 

Even with the severe consequences of an increased number of spacecrafts, it is unlikely those in the commercial space industry will halt their advancements. According to a report by the Space Foundation, “Commercial space grew 6.6% in 2020, representing nearly 80% of the space economy,” and “[the] U.S., China and ESA remain top three investors in the global space economy.” For the U.S., at least, there is no going back now—commercial space travel will be a significant part of the future. The companies funded by Branson, Bezos and Musk are all manufactured in the U.S., meaning the country is just as invested as the entrepreneurs themselves. 

Do you think space travel should be commercialized? Let us know in the comments below.