Internet billionaires, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, face off in new space race

VAN HORN, (Texas) — Two internet billionaires are facing off in a remote part of Texas, both investing billions of dollars into a very secretive race to outer space.

 Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has set up a privately-funded aerospace company called Blue Origin LLC near the small town of Van Horn. Paypal founder Elon Musk has set up his space exploration venture SpaceX in a different part of the state.

Both men have the same goal: to revolutionize space exploration, which has fallen into private hands after the termination of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011.

According to reports, the internet billionaires have plenty of cash to accomplish their goal of reaching space.

“SpaceX and Blue Origin are among several U.S. companies engaged in the private space business. Both men have seemingly unlimited resources — Bezos’ wealth is estimated at nearly $35 billion, Musk’s at $12 billion — and lofty aspirations: launching a new era of commercial space operations, in part by cutting costs through reusable rockets.”

The presence of Blue Origin, LLC, the brainchild of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, barely registers in nearby Van Horn, a way station along Interstate 10, a full decade after he began buying land in one of Texas’ largest and most remote counties.

Few visitors are allowed beyond the “No Trespassing” sign and a remote-controlled gate and into the desert and mountain environment reminiscent of the Air Force’s renowned Area 51 in Nevada. The privileged who do get inside decline to describe what they’ve seen, typically citing confidentiality agreements.

“No one gets in other than employees,” says Robert Morales, editor of the weekly Van Horn Advocate newspaper.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk

At the opposite end — of Texas and the competition — is the highly visible SpaceX venture, led by PayPal co-founder and electric car maker Elon Musk. His company contracts with NASA to resupply the International Space Station and is building a launch site about 600 miles from Van Horn, on the southernmost Texas Gulf coast, with the much-publicized goal of sending humans to Mars.

Texas’ glory days of space exploration, when “Right Stuff” Mercury astronauts trained in Houston and the city’s name was the first word spoken on the moon by Neil Armstrong, are long gone. The utilitarian Space Shuttle fell to budget cuts, depletion and age, leaving astronauts to hitch rides on Russian rockets.

Any success by the newcomers would offer “significant potential for re-invigorating space research and development in the state,” said John Junkins, director of the Center for Mechanics and Control at Texas A&M’s Department of Aerospace Engineering.

Earlier this month, Bezos announced his company’s new hydrogen rocket engine, designed for suborbital missions, had completed hundreds of tests at the West Texas site, adding, “soon we’ll put it to the ultimate test of flight.” That could come late this year.

 A more powerful engine for orbital flights, fueled by liquid oxygen and liquid natural gas, is being developed with United Launch Alliance, a venture of aerospace veterans Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp.

Blue Origin officials declined requests for an interview and site visit. “I’m so sorry,” spokeswoman Brooke Crawford said. “It’s just the way it is.”

Jeff Bezos isn't only working on Amazon – he also runs Blue Origin
Jeff Bezos isn’t only working on Amazon – he also runs Blue Origin

Bezos’ love of space originated in Texas in the 1960s when his family moved to Houston, which dubbed itself “Space City USA.”

“For me, space is something that I have been in love with since I was 5 years old,” Bezos, 51, said in a September interview with The Washington Post, which he purchased in 2013. “I watched Neil Armstrong step onto the surface of the moon, and I guess it imprinted me.”

Blue Origin’s presence in Van Horn is minimal. Morriss recalled word getting out a few years ago about a scheduled launch. Traffic at the local airstrip suggested that VIPs were coming in, and local officials were eager to join them. “No one in town got invited,” Morriss said.

By contrast, SpaceX is frequently in the headlines thanks to its nearly $2 billion federal contract. Attempts to reuse booster rockets have been rocky; it’s failed three times to land them on a platform off the Florida coast.

SpaceX already has a rocket plant near Waco. With more than $15 million in state incentives, it’s also building a launch site at Boca Chica Beach, near Brownsville. Musk hopes for at least 12 rocket launches a year, starting late next year.

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About the Author: Akhtar Jamal

Tribune International