While Elon Musk aims for Mars, Richard Branson told CNBC that both he and Blue Origins’ Jeff Bezos have more down-to-Earth goals for their respective space companies. As an entrepreneur who understands the potential of space technology to improve life on Earth, Branson is one of the backers of OneWeb, which aims to launch a large constellation of satellites capable of providing Internet access for impoverished regions on Earth. Now he says he would like to take that farther by using technology developed by Virgin Galactic and the new Virgin Orbit to help protect Earth.
Branson seemed reluctant to bash Elon Musk for being, as he said, “absolutely fixated on going to Mars.” However, he claimed, the Virgin Group and Blue Origins “are more interested in how we can use space to benefit the Earth.”
This seems to indicate that Virgin Galactic, at least, does not have any plans beyond Earth orbit. So comparing Virgin Galactic to SpaceX may be like comparing Wal-Mart to Whole Foods: Two companies in the same general niche who have different target audiences. Branson even kidded about having “the only spaceship with wheels” while SpaceX has focused its efforts on reusable rockets.
Although Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne has only managed to make it to the edge of space and SpaceX hasn’t yet flown a manned spacecraft, Branson is confident that his entry, the VSS Unity, will see its first flight “in about four months.” Meanwhile, Virgin Orbit is developing a rocket called LauncherOne, which will be capable of launching from the air to deliver several small satellites into orbit at a time. The first test flight of LauncherOne is slated for early next year.
Branson has stated that he is eager to start sending passengers into space. “There are thousands of people who would love the opportunity of becoming astronauts and going into space,” he told CNBC – though it is possible that he underestimated the number of people who would jump at the chance to go into space if they could only obtain a ticket.
So Elon Musk has one goal: Find an affordable way to send people to Mars and maybe establish a colony in the process. Richard Branson has another: Use outer space to discover new ways to improve and protect Earth. That means they aren’t even trying to directly compete, except maybe for paying customers who are waffling between paying for a trip into orbit to visit Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable habitat and paying for a trip to Mars. The good part is that space is big and Branson is good about not beating on Elon Musk too bad for just having different goals when there’s room for both.