Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Billionaires’ Ego-Driven Space Adventures Help Everyone

Progress doesn’t happen unless the ambitious get it off the ground.

By , a clinical professor of space leadership, policy, and business at Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management, and , an associate professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School.
David Morales stands near a mural on the side of his building he had painted to honor Jeff Bezos as the billionaire plans to launch his Blue Origin rocket from a launchpad in West Texas in Van Horn, Texas, on July 19.
David Morales stands near a mural on the side of his building he had painted to honor Jeff Bezos as the billionaire plans to launch his Blue Origin rocket from a launchpad in West Texas in Van Horn, Texas, on July 19. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In Ireland: A Novel, Frank Delaney notes that “any time a great man tries to do a wonderful thing, lesser men will try to stop him.” It was inevitable that when Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos announced they would be rocketing into space on their own commercial space vehicles, resentment and carping would be the order of the day. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders summarized the critical perspective by tweeting, “Here on Earth, in the richest country on the planet, half our people live paycheck to paycheck, people are struggling to feed themselves, struggling to see a doctor — but hey, the richest guys in the world are off in outer space!”

Branson reached space last week on Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane named Unity. In doing so, he not only fulfilled his own dreams but also ushered in a long-awaited new era of personal space exploration. Branson just barely beat out Bezos, who is set to duplicate the feat in his own New Shepard space capsule on Tuesday. Completing the billionaire triumvirate is Elon Musk, whose SpaceX Dragon spacecraft will be flying commercial passengers to orbit in September.

In Ireland: A Novel, Frank Delaney notes that “any time a great man tries to do a wonderful thing, lesser men will try to stop him.” It was inevitable that when Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos announced they would be rocketing into space on their own commercial space vehicles, resentment and carping would be the order of the day. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders summarized the critical perspective by tweeting, “Here on Earth, in the richest country on the planet, half our people live paycheck to paycheck, people are struggling to feed themselves, struggling to see a doctor — but hey, the richest guys in the world are off in outer space!”

Branson reached space last week on Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane named Unity. In doing so, he not only fulfilled his own dreams but also ushered in a long-awaited new era of personal space exploration. Branson just barely beat out Bezos, who is set to duplicate the feat in his own New Shepard space capsule on Tuesday. Completing the billionaire triumvirate is Elon Musk, whose SpaceX Dragon spacecraft will be flying commercial passengers to orbit in September.

Sanders and other critics have framed these flights as dangerous stunts in a contest of egos that are wasting hundreds of millions of dollars—dollars that could be better spent on problems here on Earth. While this is the ultimate contest of egos, egos exist for a reason. Without such egotism, business history would be less interesting and the U.S. economy far less robust. New industrial trends have always required self-promoting entrepreneurs like Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, and Oprah Winfrey. If their entrepreneurial behaviors had not been constructive, the implicit conventions of population and community ecology would have selected them out, along with the industries they led.

In her book, Edge: Turning Adversity Into Advantage, Laura Huang, one of the authors of this piece, argues that the first principle in gaining an edge in life is understanding that while “hard work should speak for itself, it doesn’t.” Management of reputation and constructive self-promotion are prerequisites for success in business. Musk and Branson have demonstrated mastery of these essential tools. Branson’s actions continually support an authentic narrative of caring about people.

Co-author Greg Autry, who has worked with Virgin Galactic on projects, notes, “I’ve been observing Branson since the day he launched Virgin Galactic, back in 2004. In person, you find that he is always in the moment, genuinely focused on the individual in front of him. You walk away feeling like you have a real friend, regardless of the size of that ego.” Importantly, this humanity is reflected in Branson’s selection of spacecraft designs. His system has people (pilots) at the controls, and everything about the Virgin experience is personalized and “high-touch,” much like his airline.

Bezos, on the other, has always preferred to let technology take the lead in his endeavors, and his spacecraft choices reflect that. Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle is automated from initial rocket launch down to final parachute landing. There are no pilots at all, and the firm’s first ticket to space was sold via an anonymous online auction, which raised $28 million.

Bezos’s “unhuman” approach relied on myriad tools from the self-promotion toolkit. His ticket auction was widely portrayed as hubris, and when Blue Origin released an aggressive technical comparison of New Shepard and Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo system, the online responses came fast and furious. Online conversations compared billionaire rockets to the size of billionaire egos.

Musk, who competes with Bezos in the orbital launch market and satellite internet landscape, rushed to exploit the Amazon founder’s gaffe by jetting to New Mexico to wave Branson off. Rumors are that Musk has purchased a ticket for a future Virgin space flight. Bezos sought to control the damage by awarding $19 million in grants to nonprofit space organizations.

But while the battle of egos and the influence that differing, entrepreneurial personalities have on firms are interesting—and can certainly be aggravating—the net impact of private investment into commercial space activities remains nonetheless positive.

Would we rather see billionaires deploying private capital to build a new industry, creating high-paying jobs, and developing new resources for humanity—or watch them buy another jet, yacht, or mansion? Luckily, with their leadership, private investment into the space sector is now eclipsing public investment. Competition has driven launch prices down by more than 50 percent, after decades of steady increases. This benefits the public sector as well. NASA and the U.S. Defense Department get higher performance rockets and nimble launch scheduling while taxpayers receive billions of dollars in savings. The New Space approach—with its acceptance of more risk-taking at the hands of private entrepreneurial start-ups, as well as the revitalization and inclusion of aerospace education in engineering—rises to meet the increasing demand for qualified space professionals in space operations and management.

The positive externalities are limitless. These egos are single-handedly ushering in a new industrial revolution. The public benefits of this investment—benefits that go beyond the financial, physical, or even the environmental—conceivably outweigh the immediate benefits of spending money on Earth. Perhaps our problems here on Earth, as Sanders says, are not actually that separate from space.

Not all of us appreciate egos like Branson, Bezos, or Musk, but their bigger-than-life personalities are taking us to places where no one—not even the most egotistical of men—has gone before. Their vision of space is a central feature of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which promises to make the returns for the internet boom look small. So, stop your complaining, enjoy the show, and savor the possibilities.

Greg Autry is a clinical professor of space leadership, policy, and business at Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management. He served on the 2016 NASA transition team and as the White House liaison at NASA in 2017. He is the chair of the Safety Working Group for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee.

Laura Huang is an associate professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School. Her research examines how leaders grapple with uncertainty and extreme risks and the ways in which “gut feel” acts as a key determinant in decision-making. Her first book on this topic is titled Edge: Turning Adversity Into Advantage.

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