In my youth, I wanted to be an inventor. I was glued to old movies on the telly about Thomas Edison, Barnes Wallis, Louis Pasteur, and of course Ian Fleming’s fictional Caractacus Potts. All good, clean Sunday afternoon BBC TV.
After school I would race to my garden-shed headquarters to work on ideas for how to make my wooden go-kart steer using a joystick, and for how to make it go without my mate Gary pushing it.
Growing up during the Apollo moon shots, it was space flight that stimulated me to dream up designs for my own rocket. One design used a series of pressurised baked bean cans – they were cheap. My classroom teacher, Mr Williams, pointed out that I couldn’t get any liquid oxygen to experiment with. Undeterred, I went back to my chemistry set and started working on a new idea that burned holes in my dad’s lawn.
My rocket design never flew, but I remember watching a programme about Sir Christopher Cockerell, the inventor of the hovercraft. By utilising a few tin cans and a vacuum cleaner, he proved his floating contraption could work. Perhaps I was on the right track with those bean cans after all.
IS THAT ALL YOU DO MR POTTS, INVENT THINGS?
Inventors and innovators, in my day, were Potts-type characters – poor and, like Sir Christopher, they rarely made money from their ingenuity and creativity. This is in stark contrast to the big innovators of today, who are rivals in super high-profile hi-tech: rockets that land themselves, space flights, hyperloops. I’m thinking of billionaires Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson.
Bezos has been the latest to add fuel to the one-upmanship as the three rivals battle for space supremacy, with an announcement that on July 20 he, his brother Mark and an as yet unannounced passenger who bought a golden ticket for US$28 million, will be riding his Blue Origin rocket 100 miles into the air. They will then drift back to earth, after blasting out more than their fair share of pollutants, slap each other on the back, fill up the tank and have another go.
Musk has at least taken his phantasmagorical, fuel-burning oracle; the Falcon Heavy, and turned it into a workhorse for Nasa – which in my mind redeemed him somewhat until I read about a three-day joyride in his Dragon capsule going up for sale. I wonder if that includes buzzing the International Space Station and China’s Tiangong space station to wave at the hard-working astronauts in orbit?
Musk has been nudged out of the limelight since the Bezos announcement, but Branson may have a plan to snatch all the fun from the pair of them by launching himself on his rocket-plane sometime over the July 4 holiday weekend – subject to Federal Aviation Administration approval. Sir Richard would need to push VSS Unity (the space plane) and VMS Eve (the tug that lifts the space-plane part way) to somewhere between 50 miles and 62.5 miles up or it doesn’t count against Bezos.
There is more than a hint of billionaire fatigue among the public as a result of all this. With Bezos’s space ride coming up, there is an online petition with more than 70,000 signatures on it to stop him coming back to Earth. Musk didn’t help matters by sending his old Tesla Roadster towards Mars two years ago, a pointless destination for a second-hand car when you think about it.
NASTY SMELLIN’ THINGS, MOTORCARS!
So, what does this mean? There has been a noticeable shift in focus from the billionaire innovators. From creating a commercial, sustainable space flight programme that would benefit Earth with improved telecommunications, internet satellites and other projects that may involve mining or resource exploration on the moon, they’ve now taken to one-upmanship. I wonder if that is a smart way forward?
We on Earth are fretting about car exhaust fumes and whether we should go into hock for one of Musk’s Teslas, not rocket rides that dangerously mess with the ozone in the upper atmosphere. Meanwhile, the serious exploration and work by the state-funded Chinese space programme does its carefully budgeted projects and Nasa squeezes every mile out of its limited taxpayer funding.
China’s billionaires now number a record 626, with 205 new ones minted in the past 12 months. So far they don’t seem to have been caught up in this kind of rivalry, but they have plenty of time to get involved given their relatively low average age of 53, 10 years younger than the Forbes global average. I would rather have hoped the billionaire adventurers before them were setting a better example.
Eventually, their antics may take private citizens regularly to space as passengers, tourists and colonists. Musk fancies retiring on Mars in a colony, Bezos likes the look of the moon better and Branson, the least wealthy of the three, is winding up a suborbital roller-coaster. Personally, I think Branson has more of a future in bringing back supersonic travel.
Also interesting is whether the phenomenal growth in these individuals’ wealth in 2020-21 is a direct result of governments’ spending to pull their economies out of the Covid hole. After all, isn’t the massive economic stimulus responsible for pushing the shares of Tesla, Amazon and Virgin Galactic higher? Perhaps the taxpayer ends up funding this rich boys’ space race after all – directly or indirectly.
China joins elite club of countries that have reached Mars
China joins elite club of countries that have reached Mars
So, what comes next after Bezos or Branson beat Musk?
Bezos differs a little from Sir Richard and Musk in that he is quiet in the lead-up to creating or doing something, and noisy afterwards. In that regard he is a little like fictional inventor and Iron Man Tony Stark, who wanted to remain anonymous. The other two make a racket first, and then do something about it. So it was notable to me when I learned Bezos is building a nuclear fusion reactor in Britain just outside London, and is being quite public about it. Presumably the project will get some investment from the US$17 billion fund Prime Minister Boris Johnson has earmarked for clean power to boot – but I think it kicks off a new billionaire challenge.
Ploughing some US$400 million of his Amazon fortune into harnessing the energy that powers stars by squashing atoms together in Britain rather than splitting them is very noble, but I’m undecided if it potentially accelerates the introduction of clean nuclear energy or if it is just a PR sideshow. The most credible fusion project remains the ITER collaboration involving 35 nations including China, India and Japan, which is progressing ever so slowly but promisingly, with first plasma operations planned for 2025.
Other US billionaires, such as close friends Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, want to join in too and are looking at “clean” nuclear reactor power technologies, including building a Natrium sodium-cooled fast reactor together. Hitachi-GEC have been trying for years to get funding to do something similar with their impressive Prism reactor in Japan.
Perhaps newly-minted Chinese billionaires will get involved in this one and spark a neighbourhood race for domestic clean energy and beat the American billionaires, allowing our nearby Taishan power station to be taken offline before it goes pop.
Or, does this just mean Bezos beats everyone to the first real-life Iron Man suit?
Neil Newman is a thematic portfolio strategist focused on pan-Asian equity markets