Rocket fuel is not the only thing powering the space race that pits billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson against each other.
One-upmanship is a major accelerant.
“There are big egos at play here,” Brad Stone, author of “Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire,” told The Post. “They are three of the most iconic entrepreneurs and all used to winning. Jeff is not used to being second or third. Elon is a gambler. He’s risked it all a number of times.”
The competition revved up June 10, after Bezos, 57, announced that he — along with an anonymous billionaire who paid $28 million for a seat on the Amazon founder’s New Shepard rocket — will fly to the brink of space and back on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
On June 11, reports surfaced that Branson, 70, would steal Bezos’ thunder by going up in his Virgin Galactic VSS Unity over the Fourth of July weekend. (“We have not determined the date of our next flight,” a Virgin Galactic spokesperson told The Post.)
“It would be disappointing for Bezos to work on something for 20 years and then finish second to Branson,” Eric Berger, author of “Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX,” told The Post. “I think he looks at Branson as somebody who probably wants to make money off of space to extend his Virgin empire” — rather than furthering humanity, like himself and Musk.
HOW THEY PLAN TO GET TO SPACE
As for Musk, Berger said, “He probably sees the Branson-Bezos race as a sideshow.”
Musk’s SpaceX has already had more than 100 successful blastoffs and sent astronauts into outer space.
And while Musk, who turns 50 on June 28, has publicly expressed his skepticism of Bezos — he once wrote, “We are likelier to discover unicorns dancing in the flame duct” than for a Bezos Blue Origin ship to “dock with the Space Station” — privately, insiders say, his feelings are more competitive.
“The biggest tension is between Elon and Jeff,” Ashlee Vance, author of “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future,” told The Post.
Jabs from Bezos have been subtle — like when he tweeted “Welcome to the club” at Musk after the latter finally landed a rocket vertically in 2015. The comment was needling, making the point that Bezos was first.
Always one to get the last word, Musk responded with a tweet of his own: “It is, however, important to clear up the difference between ‘space’ and ‘orbit’ ” — making it clear that his rockets went into orbit while Blue Origin’s merely went into space.
“They do not care for each other,” Vance added. “Elon dislikes Bezos. I think he finds Jeff boring.”
And now Branson — who has always loved a spectacle — is creating a distraction.
Since the early 2000s, Branson, Musk and Bezos have collectively spent billions chasing their space dreams.
Musk, the South Africa-born CEO of Tesla, wants to colonize Mars with his SpaceX rockets, even claiming that he would like to die on the Red Planet.
He founded SpaceX in 2002. The company’s first manned flight launched last year and was the first non-government vessel to dock a crew at the International Space Station. A second went up in April. Meanwhile, prototypes to get to Mars are being tested.
Musk is known for his eccentric sense of humor — hosting “Saturday Night Live” and sending a spacesuit-clad mannequin “driving” a Tesla into space for a test mission of his Falcon Heavy rocket.
But his offhanded tweets have also sent stock and cryptocurrency prices into a tailspin and gotten him in trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
“Elon has been great at whipping people into a frenzy of fandom,” said Stone. “Bezos has to be jealous of that . . . He does not have the kind of personality for going on ‘SNL.’ Elon can be so jubilantly reckless and it works out for him.”
Right now, Musk is the second richest man in America — worth, as of April 30, $172 billion to Bezos’ $202 billion. The two share a desire to establish space colonies; for Bezos, it’s about floating habitats, where humans will live and work, that orbit Earth.
His short-term goal, however, is taking people to the edge of outer space — for a few minutes of weightlessness and a view of Earth — via his Blue Origin vessels.
After it was announced that Bezos would go himself, someone started a Change.org petition demanding he not return to Earth. More than 100,000 people have signed it.
“Bezos has a branding problem,” Mark R. Whittington, author of “Why is America Going Back to the Moon,” told The Post. “A lot of people don’t like him . . . He’s been compared to a Bond villain.”
Branson, meanwhile. has been in the space game since 2004. His company, Virgin Galactic, has a waiting list of 650 — including, reportedly, Leonardo DiCaprio, Rihanna, Katy Perry and Kate Winslet. Each will pay $250,000 for a two-hour flight with about five minutes in sub-orbital space.
“Branson does not view space as the answer to humanity’s future,” said Berger of the Virgin Airlines magnate, worth $5 billion. “He is basically interested in space tourism.”
For Branson, going to space next month isn’t just about showing up Bezos. It’s also a way to make a big impression with consumers.
“Virgin Galactic has been for years saying they are the world’s first space line,” Douglas Messier, who broke the story about Branson besting Bezos for ParabolicArc.com, told The Post. “Bezos going up first with an actual customer paying $28 million will negate that.” (On Friday, US authorities gave Virgin Galactic permission to take paying customers to space, only accelerating the billionaire space race.)
Branson prides himself on his adventurer spirit — and making a splash. If Bezos is seen as a Bond villain, Branson aspires to live like Bond.
He once drove an amphibious car across the English Channel while wearing a tuxedo. When Virgin Galactic’s hangar opened in New Mexico, Branson rappelled the building — while drinking Champagne. He launched his ill-fated Virgin Cola by driving a tank through Times Square.
Not all of his stunts have worked out. Branson’s big dream in the ’90s was to set a world record by circling the globe in a hot-air balloon, but he never pulled it off. There was also the time, in 2007, that he celebrated the debut of his now-shuttered Virgin America airline by bungee-jumping off the roof of the Palms Casino in Vegas — only to bang into the building and rip his pants.
Because Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity can rise only 55 miles — 7 short of outer-space’s borderline, by international standards — Messier predicts that Bezos will offer faint praise if Branson manages the July flight.
“Bezos’ attitude will be, ‘Congratulations on the flight, but you have not actually been to space,’ ” Messier said.
It reportedly drives the three men crazy when one of their rivals publicly succeeds.
“Bezos is quite jealous of all the federal contracts that Elon Musk and SpaceX have gotten,” Berger said of lucrative deals in which SpaceX builds satellites and rocket-ship parts. “Internally, he gets upset.”
Bezos sent an e-mail to key employees in 2017 after Musk received a $1.3 billion tax break from the state of Nevada for locating his battery factory there: “Why does Elon Musk have this superpower of getting big government incentives and we don’t?”
Likewise, “Musk gets mad when he loses,” said a Musk source. “SpaceX lost out on development money from the US Air Force. I heard he took it out on his government- affairs people.”
Musk is said to look down on the other men because he doesn’t see their endeavors as being as serious as his.
When Berger interviewed Musk on the CEO’s private jet, the author mentioned that it had taken Bezos’ team seven years to build a rocket engine. “I asked Elon why it took [Bezos] so long,” Berger said. Musk responded: “Bezos is not great at engineering, to be frank.”
Branson, meanwhile, “is literally not a rocket scientist,” said Rand Simberg, an industry analyst who has had dealings with all three companies. “He is a brander.”
In 2011, Branson tried to purchase rocket engines and batteries from SpaceX. Branson treated Musk to dinner and thought he had a deal. But Musk, according to the book “Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut,” pretty much ignored further entreaties. In 2015, Musk squeezed Branson out of a satellite-internet-service deal with Google executives.
And while a Bezos insider told The Post that “Jeff will be thrilled to beat Elon as first billionaire in space,” it turns out that’s not such a big feat.
“Elon has better things to do,” an ex-Musk employee told The Post. “Going into space for him is risky and a waste of time.”
Berger agreed. “Elon values engineers more than he values astronauts,” the author said. “For him it’s much more about the engineering challenge than it is about taking a quick ride into space.”
Rob Meyerson, former president of Blue Origin and currently an operating partner at the C5 Capital investment firm, believes the competition makes them all better.
“Highly successful people are competitive — and they drive each other,” he told The Post. “SpaceX has a culture of us-against-the-world; that puts a chip on [Musk’s] shoulders while driving them forward. And they set the pace” for Bezos and Branson.
And it’s contagious, especially when the public has three personalities to root for (or against): Musk the provocateur, Bezos the Bond villain and Branson the showman.
“Having three individuals has made things entertaining and interesting,” Meyerson said. “It has been a long time since we have had this much interest and accelerated progress in the space industry.”