Elon Musk vs Richard Branson: will the geek or maverick win the battle to privatise space?


Locked against each other in the race to build a space-based Internet serving the entire globe, Elon Musk and Richard Branson have monumental plans to launch massive satellite fleets into orbit around the Earth. While the potential benefits are many — bringing Internet service to billions of people who are still unconnected, allowing travelers to stay online no matter where they go and even preparing a telecommunications system to link us to future colonies on other planets — no one is certain who can achieve the mammoth task of making it a reality. Here’s how these two competitors stack up against each other:

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Here’s what Branson’s Virgin Galactic brings to the table:

  • Branson has the experience and technical rights of Greg Wyler. According to Ars Technica reports, it was Greg Wyler who spent around 15 years developing satellite Internet projects in Africa like O3b Networks Limited with Google, and he later developed the company originally known as “WorldVu,” which is now “OneWeb.” Wyler owns the rights to a large chunk of radio spectrum that he plans to use for Virgin Galactic’s space-based Internet through the International Telecommunications Union.
  • Both Qualcomm and the Virgin Group are investing in Virgin Galactic with OneWeb. They anticipate a lower total cost of only US$2-billion, and currently they have a 30-engineer team producing antennas, software and satellites for the OneWeb space-Internet network.
  • Also according to BloomBerg News, Branson’s team is excited about Wyler’s projected earlier completion date of 2018.
  • Branson’s team plans to build a network of only 648 miniature satellites weighing 285 pounds each, which would also orbit Earth at the same 750-mile height that Musk plans on targeting with his satellites. OneWeb estimates that its satellites would only cost US$350 000 each, and Virgin Galactic would launch them with its LauncherOne and SpaceShipTwo reusable rockets.

Musk’s SpaceX company has many advantages of its own:

  • Reports from the Wall Street Journal around November of 2014 claimed that Musk was already discussing his plans with Greg Wyler, the ex-Google executive who Branson later recruited, so Musk already knows a great deal about the strengths and weaknesses of Branson’s future plans. According to this report, his original idea was to use about 700 satellites that would each weigh no more than 250 pounds; that would make them the smallest satellites in orbit.
  • According to Moneyweb Holdings Limited, Elon Musk now has the financial backing and skilled guidance of Google, a company with a long history of planning applications for a satellite-based Internet system. In fact, the Wall Street Journal also stated that Greg Wyler was previously heading a satellite project at Google for a year before he left due to disagreements about manufacturing the equipment, which eventually led Wyler to team up with Branson and Virgin Galactic.
  • SpaceX has ample financial backing from the US government and other top investors. By March of 2015, SpaceX has received US$4.2-billion dollars of contracts to transport supplies and American astronauts to the International Space Station with its Falcon nine rockets. Even Pentagon officials are interested in approving SpaceX rockets for carrying military equipment as well after seeing the successful January delivery of 5 200 pounds of supplies to the International Space Station. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, has worked with SpaceX on these supply missions since 2012. Plus, both Google and Fidelity Investments put a shared US$1-billion investment into SpaceX in January of 2015 to gain a 10-percent share of the company that is worth around US$10-billion.
  • SpaceX is already launching satellites. Moneyweb Holdings Limited also reported that SpaceX has 16 launches already scheduled for 2015.

Both Branson and Musk face many challenges:

Musk claims that since it would take about 4 000 satellites in orbit to make the satellite internet system fully functional, it doesn’t expect to complete the project for 12 to 15 years. Also, Musk still hasn’t yet created a way to land the booster rockets on a ship at sea securely so that they become reusable.

Branson’s Virgin Galactic still needs to do many more test flights to perfect its rockets too; its first SpaceShipTwo rocket, Enterprise, suddenly went down due to technical problems in 2014 after 54 previous test flights.

How does space Internet fit into the bigger picture of these men’s future plans?

Elon Musk told Management Today that he envisions us starting colonies on Mars within the next 10 to 11 years, and this space-based Internet would help fund his endeavor and provide communication between us and the infamous “red planet.” Clarifying public doubts, Elon Musk posted the following statement on Twitter on 12 March 2015:

“The rumor that I’m building a spaceship to get back to my home planet Mars is totally untrue.”

Richard Branson told Management Today that he dreams of building hotels on the Moon and providing top service as a commercial “spaceline” in addition to Virgin’s standard airline services. According to Bloomberg News, when asked about what he thinks about Musk’s plans for satellite Internet, Branson said:

“If Elon wants to get into this area, the logical thing for him would be to tie up with us, and if I were a betting man, I would say the chances of us working together rather than separately would be much higher.”

Only time can tell whether Branson or Musk will win the battle to privatize space with satellite Internet. Of course, no one can entirely rule out the possibility of these competitors eventually working together to accomplish this mammoth task of building a successful space-based Internet. After all, even earlier investors including Bill Gates gave up on this exact same venture in 1994 after losing US$9-billion in the Teledesic enterprise that encountered far more rising costs and complications than it had originally anticipated.

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