This Thursday, Jeff Bezos will make an announcement about his space company, Blue Origin. The image on the invitation sent to members of the press, a view of the Earth as seen from the Moon, suggests the Amazon founder will unveil Blue Origin’s plans to send both robotic and human missions to the lunar surface, possibly with a NASA contract in hand.
If that’s the case, he won’t be alone. Aerospace contractor Lockheed Martin has already unveiled its lunar plans in partnership with NASA. And Elon Musk’s SpaceX has a plan for a lunar flyby mission, while NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstein suggested to a Senate committee in March that the agency was open to using commercial heavy-lift rockets for its lunar crewed missions. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy could serve such a mission.
The last few years have seen an increasing interest in going back to the Moon. The Trump Administration has announced it wants NASA to put humans back on the Moon by 2024, and the agency has also announced plans for a “Lunar Gateway” – a space station orbiting the Moon that would be developed in collaboration with multiple space agencies. That space station brings with it opportunities for commercial companies to develop lunar capabilities to provide support for missions at the Gateway.
Lockheed Martin has a long history with NASA and lunar exploration—it was one of the contractors on the Apollo missions. But billionaires Musk, who runs Tesla as well as SpaceX, and Bezos represent the burgeoning commercial space industry, and the paths the two respective men took to get to this point couldn’t be much different.
What the two companies have in common is that both are very much products of their founders’ visions. Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, just three years after Amazon’s IPO fed his fortune. Two years later, fresh off the sale of PayPal, Musk founded SpaceX with his own personal fortune.
It’s from there, however, that the paths of the companies diverged. For the next 15 years, Blue Origin barely made any noise, save for some controversy as Bezos bought up land in Texas to serve as the company’s test facility in the early 2000s, and some small announcements about milestones it had achieved in agreements made with NASA for about $25.7 million in funding for space development. Bezos remains the sole owner of Blue Origin, and Forbes estimates that the world’s wealthiest man has funneled over $1.5 billion of his personal fortune into the company, financed by sales of Amazon stock.
SpaceX, in the meantime, has been anything but quiet. The company began making noise in December 2003, when it drove its first rocket, the Falcon One, from the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California to Washington, D.C. in order to unveil it at the National Mall for an invited group of Congressional staffers, NASA and FAA officials.. Musk regularly promotes the company and its plans for the future, his eyes firmly set on Musk’s personal vision that SpaceX is to be the vanguard of humans becoming a multiplanetary civilization.
Musk was also more aggressive in obtaining venture financing and government contracts in order to support his company. Though he still maintains majority ownership (Forbes estimates his stake in the company is over 50%), SpaceX has also raised over $2.5 billion to date in venture financing, grants and debt, with a current valuation of over $31.5 billion, according to Pitchbook. Recent SEC filings show it aims to raise another $500 million in capital this year.
Throughout the past decade, SpaceX has kept itself in the public eye —even as it has brought the “move fast and break things” ethos of Silicon Valley to the traditionally more conservative aerospace industry.
“SpaceX is off trying new things, rapidly innovating, breaking things,” said Chad Anderson, founder of Space Angels, a VC firm specializing in the space industry. “They test quite a bit, and we’ve seen some failures. We’ve seen explosions of rockets — they even put a highlight reel together of rockets exploding as they tried to land them. They take it as a point of pride that they’re willing to try new things and they’re really captured the imagination of the public that way.”
By contrast, Blue Origin rarely makes major announcements about future plans, unless it’s unavoidable due to public contracts or other reasons, preferring instead to focus its press efforts on what it’s accomplished. “Bezos proudly proclaims whenever he does a big announcement, he likes to talk about the things that he’s done,” said Anderson. One rare exception for this has been its plans for the Moon. Its robotic cargo delivery lander, Blue Moon, was first announced in 2017, and last summer the company revealed that it had a five year plan to get to the Moon.
While SpaceX has adopted a high-profile view of its risky, iterative innovation strategy, Blue Origin’s development is nearly the exact opposite. The company motto is Gradatim Ferociter, a Latin phrase meaning Step By Step, Ferociously. In interviews, Bezos has quoted the old military maxim that “slow is smooth and smooth is fast,” and every time one of its resuable rockets has a successful launch and landing, a tortoise is painted on its side, a nod to Aesop’s moral that “slow and steady wins the race.”
Despite Bezos’ faith in a more slow-paced, perfectionist approach to development, it’s undeniable that SpaceX has seen more success – at least so far. Though Blue Origin has had 11 successful launches to date, it has yet to send any spacecraft to orbit, instead keeping its launches suborbital, like the Mercury spacecraft that its current system is inspired by.
SpaceX, meanwhile, has had over 70 successful commercial orbital launches, which include not only putting satellites in orbit but also 15 successful deliveries of cargo to the International Space Station. It was the first company to make a cargo delivery to the station, and the company has also seen two successful launches of its Falcon Heavy rocket, currently the most powerful rocket in commercial production.
This track record has also come at some cost to the company. It’s had multiple launch failures, some of which have resulted in the loss of customer payloads, and more recently, a test fire of rockets on the spacecraft it’s developing to deliver astronauts to the space station led to the destruction of that craft— and has also likely pushed the schedule for sending astronauts to the station back to 2020. The company was originally set to have its first successful crewed flight in 2017.
In this billionaire race to the Moon, Bezos and Musk have set themselves up as the Tortoise and the Hare, respectively. But it likely won’t be until at least the mid-2020s that we learn which approach will win.
-Alex Knapp; Forbes Staff
Surge Of Smartphone Apps Promise Coronavirus Tracking, But Raise Privacy Concerns
Topline: A pan-European team of researchers announced Wednesday their plan to release a smartphone app that would notify users if they’ve been exposed to someone infected with coronavirus, the latest example of tech-driven coronavirus solutions that have also raised concerns about user privacy.
- A European project called Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing is working toward releasing a coronavirus tracing app in the next week that would use anonymous Bluetooth technology to track when a smartphone comes in close range with another, so if a user were to test positive for coronavirus those at risk of infection could be notified.
- Contact tracing, or determining people who may have been exposed to someone with a virus, is an established aspect of pandemic control and was used effectively to tackle coronavirus in countries like China, Singapore and South Korea in the form of smartphone tracking.
- University of Oxford researchers and the U.K. government are working on a similar project— but unlike other smartphone tracking systems, the British version in development would be based on voluntary participation and bet on citizens inputting their information out of a sense of civic duty.
- The U.S. government is in talks with companies like Facebook FB and Google GOOGL and other tech companies about tracking if users are social distancing using large amounts of anonymous, aggregated location data— this information is less precise, and more likely to anticipate outbreaks rather than pinpoint individuals who have been exposed to the virus.
- 1.5 million Israelis have voluntarily downloaded a mobile app that alerts users if they’ve come into contact with someone with coronavirus— but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has still ordered that potential coronavirus carriers have their phones monitored, a controversial move the government says is necessary, as the 17% of the population using the app is not enough to fight off the pandemic.
- Moscow , on a city-wide lockdown since Monday, announced Wednesday that a new phone app that will officials to track the movements of people diagnosed with coronavirus in the capital city would be launched on Thursday, saying the government will lend a smartphone to anyone unable to download the app.
Crucial quote: “We’re exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against [coronavirus]. One example could be helping health authorities determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps ,” Google spokesman Johnny Luu told the The Washington Post. He made sure to note it “would not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement, or contacts.”
Key background: Private and public entities alike are looking for ways to fight off coronavirus as the pandemic continues. On Wednesday, there were more than 900,000 confirmed cases worldwide and nearly 50,000 deaths.Officials told The New York Times NYT that The National Health Service, Britain’s centralized national health system, is trusted by citizens— and paired with the strong data privacy laws in place, said they think people would agree to join the effort to share their private information to help trace infections. However, American tech firms are reported to still be skeptical about sharing substantial data with the U.S. government ever since Edward Snowden revealed the NSA was collecting information from the firms clandestinely.
Surprising fact: The information tech companies have access to data that sheds light on Americans’ behavior in light of the coronavirus pandemic. According to a Facebook analysis, restaurant visits fell about 80% in Italy and 70% in Spain— while Americans only stopped eating out at a rate of 31%.
Apple Is Donating 9 Million Masks To Combat The Coronavirus
Topline: Apple will donate 9 million N95 protective masks to combat the coronavirus, Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday, making Apple one of several California tech companies pitching in as hospitals across the country report a shortage of protective gear.
- Pence thanked Apple for agreeing to donate 9 million N95 respirator masks to healthcare facilities across the country during a press briefing on Tuesday.
- Pence’s remarks come after Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted over the weekend the company was “working to help source supplies for healthcare providers fighting COVID-19” and “donating millions of masks for health professionals in the US and Europe,” but did not offer more specifics.
- N95 respirators are masks that form a protective seal around a wearer’s mouth, filtering out at least 95% of particles in the air, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which makes them necessary to protect healthcare workers from being exposed to the disease from patients.
- Facebook has also said it is donating its stockpile of 720,000 masks purchased during the California wildfires last year, which degraded the air quality in the San Francisco Bay Area.
- Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Forbes asking if all of the donated masks were stockpiled because of the wildfires or if the company got them from somewhere else.
Chief critic: Teddy Schleifer, a reporter at Recode, wrote that health systems shouldn’t rely on the generosity of big tech companies to make up for the failures of the federal government.
“But there is a risk in relying on corporate philanthropy—rather than the government—in solving this problem. For starters, it depends on the voluntary generosity of these companies to deal with an unprecedented emergency, an altruism that could vanish at any time,” he wrote.
Crucial quote: “And I spoke today, and the president spoke last week, with Tim Cook of Apple. And at this moment in time Apple went to their store houses and is donating 9 million N95 masks to healthcare facilities all across the country and to the national stockpile,” Pence said.
Key background: Apple is one of several California tech companies to give away N95 masks. In addition to Facebook, Salesforce, Tesla and IBM have also announced mask donations.
News peg: Doctors and nurses are sounding the alarm that they don’t have enough masks to protect healthcare workers. Not only does inadequate protective gear put important frontline health workers at risk, public health experts say, any situation endangering medical personnel may only further depletes the U.S. health system which already doesn’t have enough capacity to handle a surge in cases. State officials in New York and Illinois have criticized President Donald Trump for not stepping in to force companies to manufacture masks or allocate masks from private companies to ensure that states don’t outbid each other for the same supplies.
–Rachel Sandler, Forbes Staff, Breaking News
Video Games Are Being Played At Record Levels As The Coronavirus Keeps People Indoors
Topline: With school closures, mandatory work-from-home policies and lockdowns taking place in the U.S. as a result of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, gaming has seen higher engagement, especially over this past weekend.
- Steam, the most popular digital PC gaming marketplace, reached new heights Sunday, drawing a record 20,313,451 concurrent users to the 16-year-old service, according to third-party database SteamDB.
- Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, released by Steam-owner Valve in 2012, seems to be the top beneficiary of the increased engagement, breaking it’s all-time peak on Sunday with 1,023,2290 concurrent players, topping its previous peak last month by a million, which itself beat the record set in April 2016.
- Like other esports, CS:GO has had to cancel events due to the virus, particularly the Intel Extreme Masters in Katowice earlier this month, though its peak viewership reached over a million, making it one of the most watched tournaments in the esports’ history.
- Activision Blizzard’s new free-to-play battle royale spinoff Call of Duty: Warzone, launched March 10 on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4, is also likely benefiting, drawing in a staggering 15 million in three days, besting the record 10 million in three days by last year’s battle royale sensation Apex Legends.
- These new heights follows similar effects of the virus on China and Italy: Telecom Italia’s CEO told Bloomberg it saw a 70% increase in traffic over its landline network, with Fortnite playing a significant part, while Chinese live-streaming service Douyu experienced increased viewership of the country’s most popular games, according to market analyst Niko Partners.
- While gaming was considered “recession proof” during the 2008 market crash, stocks aren’t immune to the current historic drops: software developers like Activision Blizzard are facing a 9% decrease in price year-to-date, while hardware companies that rely on Chinese manufacturing like Nintendo are seeing bigger drops of 24%.
What To Watch For: If these records keep rising as the closings and lockdowns continue. Arriving this week is Nintendo’s long-awaited Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the Switch console, a relaxing “life-simulator” that’s set to have a big day with many fans not-so-jokingly asking Nintendo to launch early.
Surprising Fact: Plague Inc., a game that tasks players in creating a virus that wipes out humanity, surged in popularity late January, becoming the top-paid game on the Chinese app store at one point, but the game has now been removed in China at the direction of the government.
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