Branson, Bezos and Musk: A new space race for a new generation

Branson, Bezos and Musk: A new space race for a new generation
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Americans love competition. We have our favorite sports teams, from high school to pro sports, that we cheer on against all others. We applaud those who can score the most points, drive the fastest, go the highest. It is a core essence of who we are as a people, even in troubled times.

I share something special with Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic. On the night Apollo 11 landed on the moon, July 20, 1969, my father and I stood in our backyard and talked about a future that took us to the moon, and someday soon to Mars, and then the stars. Branson, who is my age, spoke of the same things with his father on that historic night and the desire we both had to reach for the stars.

It never happened. Earthbound politics kept humanity firmly planted on the ground. I turned to writing, and would finally write novels about space, even working with NASA on one book. I would learn to fly, and own a World War II airplane, but always gravity held me firmly locked on terra firma.  

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Branson? In numerous interviews he has said it was the dreams of Apollo that inspired him to yearn for space. The years passed, governments did not act, except for an expensive chosen few, until finally Branson decided he would build his own future and go there himself. This week he fulfilled that desire in spaceship “EVE,” named for the mother who inspired and guided his childhood dreams. 

A new age is dawning as ordinary citizens reach for the stars. Next week, Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosDems look to keep tax on billionaires in spending bill Matt Stroller: Amazon's Bezos likely lied under oath before Congress The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Biden, Democrats dig into legislative specifics MORE, inspired by the same ambitions as Branson, intends to soar heavenward in his Blue Origin spacecraft. With him will be one of the Mercury 13 female test pilots, Wally Funk, a woman who has waited 60 years for her ambitions to come true.

And then there is Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskPrince William urges focus on saving planet instead of space travel Democrats' electric vehicle push sparks intense lobbying fight Blue Origin is taking William Shatner to space — but can it distract from internal criticism? MORE. In a few more months he plans to launch the biggest rocket ever created, nearly twice the size of the legendary Apollo-Saturn V, and send it heavenward on its first orbital test flight. Next stop: back to the moon by 2024 and Mars by 2027. Musk’s great ambition is to personally go to Mars, and I think he will indeed do it.

The naysayers out there are plentiful. Their mantra goes that space has merely become the playground for self-indulgent billionaires. These new Luddites cry out their age-old, tired litany of criticism that Branson, Bezos and Musk (BBM for short) should spend their money on problems here on Earth — or even better, let’s just confiscate their money with more taxes and, in the process, kill their ridiculous ambitions.

We have a choice, and it is simple: Dream big and create a fascinating new future as a true spacefaring nation or stay bound to Earth forever.

Consider for a moment what BBM gives us — in particular my favorite, Elon Musk. With his space-based Star Link system, he is, at this moment, creating the first true World Wide Web, sending aloft thousands of small satellites that will bind our planet together in a true internet global community. Hundreds of millions of people in the Third World will at last have high-speed internet connection, with some of its downsides but also its life-transforming advantages in education.  

Besides his space efforts, Musk is the Henry Ford of the 21st century with electric vehicles that could wean us from our dead-end dependence on oil. Like it or not, Bezos’s Amazon has transformed how we live and shop, especially during the pandemic, and Branson led the way with low-cost air transportation.

In the 1960s we had the space race with Russia, the competition to prove to the world that the American system of free enterprise and open communications was superior to anything the Soviets could offer. It was my inspiration to dream, as it was for millions of school-age baby boomers, including Richard Branson.

My generation believed in such things as “Star Trek,” built model rockets, followed every Apollo launch, and along the way took traditional STEM classes in physics, chemistry and math.  The team of BBM can trigger that yet again — and, in fact, they’re doing so now.

Americans love competition. We had it in the Sixties with the head-to-head competition of the space race. It can happen again, and those who are involved pave the way for a new generation — not of governments, but of ordinary citizens — to reach for the stars. 

William R. Forstchen is a faculty fellow and professor of history at Montreat College and the author of over 50 books, including “Pillar to the Sky,” written in cooperation with NASA, and “One Second After.” Follow him on Twitter @forstchen.