Kennedy and Khruschev have given way to Musk and Branson in the Space Race, with the next significant spacecraft set to be branded as SpaceX or Virgin, not with the ponderous logos of global superpowers.
That’s what the 21st Century has come to, as the once-urgent geopolitical, military and scientific attractions of manned space flight have given way to personal entertainments and branding exercises. Musk/SpaceX and Branson/Virgin both made shows of their latest space travel promises this week.
Musk already has promised to begin taking tourists on SpaceX aircraft into space beginning next year, notable among them a group of “astronauts” who were selected and are being “trained” under a long-running space-themed marketing promotion by Unilever’s Axe and Lynx body-spray brands.
But this week Musk unveiled a cone-shaped spaceship that he hopes one day will ferry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, return to earth and set down like a helicopter, then refuel and take off again—perhaps even the same day. Before a crowd of journalists and SpaceX employees at the company’s California headquarters, according to the Los Angeles Times, Musk revealed a white capsule, dubbed Dragon V2, that is designed to fit seven flyers at a time.
The capsule, named after its cargo-carrying predecessor Dragon, which recently completed its third cargo resupply mission for NASA with the help of SpaceX's Falcon rockets, will be completely reusable after it returns from space. The company expects to make its first manned test flight using Dragon V2 by the end of 2016. Until then, American astronauts are renting space in Russian Soyuz capsules for flights to the station since NASA's shuttle program was grounded three years ago.
Branson has a different aim: to create a space-tourism brand, one of a handful of new ventures that he, like Google’s founders, likens to “moonshots.” Branson signed a deal with the FAA this week to let Virgin Galactic blast paying customers into space from New Mexico beginning by the end of this year. More than 600 people already have signed up at $250,000 each to take a trip on Branson’s SpaceShipTwo.
At a time when the US and Russia are jousting more than they have in a while, space no longer is a theater for them. Instead, it’s where two of the world’s leading transportation entrepreneurs are set to take their corporate and personal brands—literally—to whole new levels.