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Bezos space flight: Billionaire space race could benefit regular people, too

·Technology Editor
·7 min read
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This article was first featured in Yahoo Finance Tech, a weekly newsletter highlighting our original content on the industry. Get it sent directly to your inbox every Wednesday by 4 p.m. ET. Subscribe

Amazon (AMZN) founder Jeff Bezos successfully launched Tuesday from a remote area of west Texas on his Blue Origin rocket, becoming the second billionaire this month to leave the Earth, albeit briefly.

Bezos’ July 20 flight on the New Shepard spacecraft came less than two weeks after Richard Branson took to space aboard Virgin Galactic’s (SPCE) VSS Unity. The space rivalry doesn’t end there: Billionaire and Tesla (TSLA) CEO Elon Musk, who regularly trades places with Bezos as the world’s richest person, also plans to join the uber-rich who’ve been to space on Branson’s Virgin Galactic, though there’s no firm date for his flight.

The cynic in me wants to rain on the trio’s space race. The super rich battling for huge government space contracts seems like the furthest concern for most average citizens. But the reality is the technologies these companies develop could benefit people worldwide far into the future. After all, investments in space have already led to innovations like high-efficiency solar panels, ear thermometers, and scratch-resistant eyeglasses.

“There will be technological spin-offs that we don't know, because there always are every time we’ve invested in space,” Greg Autry, professor of space leadership, policy, and business at Arizona State’s Thunderbird School of Global Management, told Yahoo Finance.

As Bezos himself told CNN on Monday, his mission is to build "a road to space for the next generations to do amazing things there, and those amazing things will solve problems here on Earth."

Space travel has given us benefits here on the ground

Space flight has benefited everyday Americans for decades, spurring cutting edge medical technologies ranging from artificial limb technology and artificial hearts to insulin pumps.

Even infrared thermometers, the in-ear thermometers that read your temperature in seconds, evolved from technology developed for space. According to NASA, the thermometers were initially intended to measure the temperature of stars. Now they’re used to check the temperature of humans.

Space has spurred more complex medical instruments, too: The robotic arm for the space shuttle, Canadarm, and the International Space Station's Canadarm2, inspired the NeuroArm, which performs brain surgery.

The SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft is grappled by the Canadarm2 robotic arm at the International Space Station in this May 25, 2012 NASA handout photo.  The capsule -- carrying 3,100 pounds of science samples and other equipment --  made a parachute splashdown into the Pacific Ocean May 21, 2015, wrapping up a five-week stay at the International Space Station. REUTERS/NASA/Handout via Reuters
The SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft is grappled by the Canadarm2 robotic arm at the International Space Station in this May 25, 2012 NASA handout photo. REUTERS/NASA/Handout via Reuters

It’s not just medical marvels that have developed from space programs. Nike Air sneakers came about as a result of work done developing NASA suits. Water purification technology initially meant for space is now used to keep swimming pools clean without chemicals like chlorine. And sensors to tell you when the air in your car’s tires is low came from devices used to measure the air pressure of the space shuttle’s tires.

The GPS in your smartphone that you use to get the fastest directions from your house to the nearest Wendy’s also resulted from NASA’s work.

How the new space race could benefit us

So, how can the billionaire space race benefit us in the future? “I think having more people develop ways to get into space is going to increase the technology available for everyone,” said Rocky Kolb, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago.

Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of colonizing Mars, and has gone on to launch reusable rockets and send NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. Bezos, meanwhile, founded Blue Origin in 2000 and launched his first human flight on July 20. Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, and is finally nearing fully commercial tourist flights.

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SpaceX’s ability to reuse rockets has been revolutionary, and according to Musk, could lower the cost of a launch to less than $6 million from $60 million. That would go a long way in helping Musk to reach his ultimate goal of bringing humans to Mars. Beyond Musk’s hope of colonizing Mars and developing an off-world society, traveling to Mars could have other benefits, including helping scientists understand the origins of life.

NEW MEXICO, USA - JULY 11: Sir Richard Branson flew into space aboard a Virgin Galactic vessel, a voyage he described as the
Richard Branson flew into space aboard a Virgin Galactic vessel, a voyage he described as the "experience of a lifetime" at the Spaceport America in New Mexico, United States on July 11, 2021. (Photo by Virgin Galactic / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Musk has also promised to use SpaceX technology to reduce travel times here on Earth, with the brash CEO saying in 2017 that people could reach anyone on the globe in under an hour.

Bezos’ Blue Origin has its own reusable rocket systems with a similar tract as SpaceX, and more than one rocket company with similar capabilities means more opportunities for traveling to space. It could also help NASA get the tons of equipment needed to develop a presence on the Moon, part of its Mars mission, far easier and more affordable.

Branson’s VSS Unity is meant to launch and land like a regular airliner and provide trips for tourists and scientists performing research alike. In fact, Virgin Galactic announced in June that it will launch a researcher into space to test new technologies for human spaceflight.

And as with prior space missions, all of these technologies will filter down to everything from the medical techniques to the commercial goods that we’ll eventually use in our daily lives.

The space race isn’t without its controversy

The new space race has its critics, who might point out that billionaires shouldn’t receive massive government contracts for their space ventures.

Indeed, SpaceX has already won contracts with NASA and the Department of Defense worth billions, while Blue Origin is in the running for the same kinds of contracts in the future.

But an attempt to add $10 billion to NASA’s budget to give Bezos’ Blue Origin the option to develop a secondary moon lander for the agency’s upcoming Moon missions kicked off a flurry of backlash from members of Congress critical of the billionaires.

In May, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) complained on the floor of the Senate that Musk and Bezos are “privatizing” space, and that the U.S. wouldn’t be able to take the kind of pride it had in the first Moon landing in an effort to reach Mars run by private firms.

“This is something that should be an American effort, that all of us should be a part of, and not simply be a private corporation undertaking,” Sanders said.

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Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) also opposed the funding for Blue Origin since it’s owned by Bezos, who founded Amazon, which has faced antitrust scrutiny.

Despite the controversy, it’s obvious that the new space race isn't dying out anytime soon. And while funding for NASA has always been hard to come by, causing delays to programs including the current mission to return to the Moon, private space companies and the technologies they’ve developed, including reusable rockets, will prove irreplaceable as a means of getting people into space faster and at a lower cost than publicly funded ventures.

And as more technologies are developed for those programs, we humans on Earth will continue to reap the benefits in still untold ways.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on July 14, 2021 and updated on July 20.

By Daniel Howley, tech editor. Follow him at @DanielHowley

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