This week, Jeff Bezos became the second billionaire to make a suborbital flight. But is this a quest for space tourism?

Columnist Michael Hiltzik writes when it comes to the billionaire space race, the stakes are much higher. In an interview for "LA Times Today," Hiltzik joined host Lisa McRee with the details. 

What You Need To Know

  • The space race among billionaires Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk reached a milestone when Branson rode a Virgin Galactic craft some 50 miles high into the wild blue yonder

  • Blue Origin and SpaceX are also in an intense battle with each other and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin

  • In April, NASA’s inspector general estimated that the space agency could spend as much as $86 billion on Artemis, a mission to return to the moon, by the end of fiscal 2025, assuming that Congress appropriates the money

  • Artemis isn’t the only government program issuing contracts to private spaceflight companies; there’s also competition for satellite launches and for carrying crew and payloads to the International Space Station

Besides Bezos, two other key players are part of the space race.

"You've got Sir Richard Branson, who's a British entrepreneur who's got a lot of companies, an airline, an orbital satellite company, and he's got Virgin Galactic, which he thinks is going to build into a large-scale space tourism business. Then Elon Musk, he's got SpaceX, which has become a major contractor of NASA and the Department of Defense. He's not talking about going up himself, but he wants to be in the space tourism business. And I think he's bought a ticket on Richard Branson's enterprise. They are all billionaires. They've all accumulated, obviously, parcels of money. And this is the way that they're spending their wealth," said Hiltzik.

Branson recently launched what he called a world of "equal access to space" for people of any age, gender or ethnicity. However, the ticket prices are very high.

"Everybody who's looked at the market for space tourism thinks it's a niche market at best. Branson is selling tickets at the moment for $250,000 per trip. It's not something that the average person has the money to do or probably will think makes a lot of sense. The real ball game here is in contracting with NASA, the Department of Defense and other government agencies. NASA alone is expected to spend about $86 billion between now and 2025 on its next crewed mission. That's supposed to be a mission that's called Artemis. It's a mission to return human beings to the surface of the moon by 2028. That's certainly what Musk and Bezos and, to a lesser extent, Branson are all competing for. They're competing for billions of dollars in government contracts. That's just like Lockheed, and Martin Marietta and Grumman and all these other traditional aeronautical contractors are doing. They are very much kept afloat by the promise of big federal contracts," added Hiltzik. 

Hiltzik says that the companies were under some pressure from Congress to privatize their efforts.

"The idea was that if you gave private companies more leeway, contracted with them more, then they were going to have an incentive to bring the cost of space flights way down. And I think that has happened. But let's not forget that even going back to Project Mercury and even before that, private companies always had very heavy participation in these efforts. NASA contracted with aerospace companies to do the hard work, although NASA had a lot more control of what was being done than it has going forward," Hiltzik said.

Along with three billionaires, Hiltzik says that traditional space companies are in the game too.

"There's a company called United Launch Alliance, which is basically Boeing and Partners. That's a significant competitor for these same contracts. So it's not in the business of giving individual civilians joy rides into space. It's really devoted entirely toward government contracts," Hiltzik said. 

Regarding the billionaire space race, scientists have different thoughts about its productivity and contribution to space travel.

"Scientists who have basically been in the field of crewed space flight, they're all for this because that's they're talking their book. That's what they do. That's what they've studied for their careers, and that's what they're interested in. But scientists who are interested in the exploration of the moon, the exploration of Mars see this as not only a distraction but very possibly a drawback to what they do. And that's because when you are talking about putting human beings in capsules and sending them into space, the mission becomes almost entirely on keeping the human beings alive and healthy," said Hiltzik.

It's the science of determining what actually is on the moon and what Mars is actually made of. And what we've seen over the last maybe 15 years is that robots and remote rovers are much better at this sort of exploration than human beings are. First of all, they're cheaper; the missions cost a lot less money because you don't have to worry about protecting humans and making sure they don't die or get injured in space. And they're perfectly capable of doing all the exploration and all the research and sending back all the data that exploratory scientists want to see. The most amazing pictures that we've gotten from the surface of Mars have come to us from Mars rovers and remote Mars missions. The most interesting information about the Martian surface and even what's below the surface has come to us not from human groups but robots. And that really is what's much more effective, much more cost-effective than sending human beings into space."

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