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Space race 2021: Branson versus Bezos in the battle for...

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Space race 2021: Branson versus Bezos in the battle for billionaire bragging rights

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Toby Shapshak is publisher of Stuff (Stuff.co.za) and Scrolla.Africa.

The latest space race might be over by this weekend. Instead of the two Cold War superpowers duking it out for mid-century engineering and national prestige, it’s two billionaires and their private firms in a race for mostly bragging rights.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

After Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced he was flying to space with his Blue Origin spaceship on 20 July, guerrilla marketing expert Richard Branson last week announced he was taking flight himself on 11 July. The flight was successful and Branson described it afterwards as “indescribable”.

Bezos will be joined by his brother Mark, the winner of a $28-million auction, and 82-year-old flying legend Wally Funk, who qualified as a Nasa astronaut in the 1960s but never flew to space. “I didn’t think I’d ever get to go up,” the wonderfully named Funk said.

She was a 21-year-old pilot when she passed the exhaustive training that America’s first astronauts from 1961 to 1963 completed – known as the Mercury 7. Funk was the youngest of 13 women, who never flew because of their sex, called the Mercury 13.

In a nod to the early days of the American space programme, Bezos’ spaceship is patriotically named New Shepard after the first American astronaut in space, Alan Shepard. Funk did the same training as he did, and will now become the oldest person in space.

The same day of this heart-warming announcement, Branson also revealed he will ride in his SpaceShipTwo to the edge of space, nine days earlier than Blue Origin. It was trademark Branson showmanship, using a video showing him walking towards the camera – reminiscent of the epic The Right Stuff scene of the Apollo astronauts walking – dressed in a blue jumpsuit designed by fitness brand Under Armour.

Technically they’re all suborbital flights because they do not actually get far enough out to be in orbit, although Bezos is going higher, over the so-called Kármán line, which is 100km above sea level and considered by some as the boundary to space.

For Funk, it is a bittersweet conclusion to decades-old sexism that prevented women from being sent into space. She still feels “fabulous” as she will finally get into space, as it were. “I’ll love every second of it. Whoooo! Ha-ha. I can hardly wait,” Funk said. “Nothing has ever gotten in my way. They said, ‘Well, you’re a girl, you can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Guess what, doesn’t matter what you are. You can still do it if you want to do it and I like to do things that nobody has ever done.’”

Despite never making it to space, Funk had an illustrious career, becoming the first female Federal Aviation Administration inspector and first female National Transportation Safety Board air safety investigator.

“They told me that I had done better and completed the work faster than any of the guys,” she said. Now she will. John Glenn, the other notable American in space, flew again when he was aged 77 in 1998 – making him the oldest astronaut. Funk will eclipse that. Albeit clearly a publicity stunt, it’s a tremendously cool one. Or dope, as the cool kids say these days.

The last space race was a battle between former World War 2 allies who then became Cold War enemies. This billionaire-inspired space race is more about personal prestige than national, and the showmanship is remarkably similar.

It is significant that three of the richest people in the world – including Elon Musk’s own SpaceX efforts – are developing three different ways to get into space – and in Musk’s case to the Moon and Mars. That bodes very well for us space geeks who want to experience weightlessness with an awesome view of the Earth, but particularly well for the growth of a new kind of space industry. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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