Elon Musk vs. Jeff Bezos: Who's going to win in space?

Story highlights

  • Elon Musk's SpaceX successful landed the Falcon 9 rocket; Jeff Bezos landed New Shepard earlier
  • Don Lincoln: In the friendly rivalry to bring us into a new era of commercial spaceflight, who will win?

Dr. Don Lincoln is a senior physicist at Fermilab and does research using the Large Hadron Collider. He has written numerous books and produces a series of science education videos. He is the author of, most recently, "The Large Hadron Collider: The Extraordinary Story of the Higgs Boson and Other Things that Will Blow Your Mind." Follow him on Facebook. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)This week, we witnessed another blow in a very public battle between two heavyweights. I'm talking about Elon Musk's successful vertical landing of his Falcon 9 rocket and his undisguised glee at trumping Jeff Bezos' recent vertical landing of New Shepard.

Elon Musk is the founder of SpaceX, Tesla Motors and PayPal while Jeff Bezos is founder of Amazon and Blue Origin. Both SpaceX and Blue Origin are privately held aerospace companies whose goals are the privatization of space exploration.
Don Lincoln
Of the two, Musk is the more flamboyant and entertaining. He's like a real world Tony Stark, minus the flying Iron Man suit and weapons. Bezos is known to be more private. Judging by the number of their tweets -- Musk's 1,500 vs. Bezos' 5 -- we know who likes to talk.
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    But when it comes to passion, the two are an equal match. Both of them want to bring humanity into a new era of commercial spaceflight.
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    Musk's plan is to build a heavy lift rocket that would make spaceflight more economical. His big idea is to send humans to Mars in a decade or two. Once the heavy lifting technology is reliable, the next step is working out the issues of interplanetary travel.
    Perhaps his grandest vision statement was revealed when he said that he'd like to die on Mars and preferably not on impact.
    Bezos holds his plans a bit closer to his chest, but his company's successes seem to be aimed more at the suborbital tourist market.
    His New Shepard capsule, which successfully landed on November 24, is designed to travel about 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) above the surface of the Earth and land safely. If he can do this economically, there are many affluent people who would pay to see the Earth from space. Interestingly, Bezos has publicly rejected any plans to compete for U.S. national security missions.
    It's been rather fun to observe the catty public communications between these two strong-willed leaders. Bezos was close-lipped when SpaceX successfully lifted a payload to the International Space Station in May of 2012 and also when SpaceX placed a satellite into a geostationary orbit in December 2013. But recently, he's loosened up.
    The technology that will be crucial to bringing the price of spaceflight down is one that opens the gateway to reusable rockets.
    SpaceX has experimented with landing rockets on a barge in the ocean and three attempts had been unsuccessful. So when Bezos' New Shepard rocket launched to a height of 100 kilometers and successfully landed vertically just a few feet from its launch point, it heralded a significant breakthrough in the commercial space race.
    Bezos first tweet ever was: "The rarest of beasts - a used rocket. Controlled landing not easy, but done right, can look easy." Musk was a bit dismissive in response: "It is, however, important to clear up the difference between 'space' and 'orbit'."
    Musk correctly pointed out that the New Shepard simply rose to a great height and returned to Earth, but it didn't orbit. It might be counterintuitive, but to successfully orbit the Earth, you need to put 100 times as much energy into getting the payload to go sideward than you need to lift it above the surface. Musk's rockets can orbit, so his technology is far superior in this regard.
    SpaceX's success on Monday was that it gently landed a rocket that also successfully inserted 11 satellites into orbit. Bezos's congratulatory tweet had enough catty snark to be funny: "Congrats @SpaceX on landing Falcon's suborbital booster stage. Welcome to the club!"
    It's hard to know which of these two companies will win the commercial space race, but it appears that Musk has the advantage. He has over 60 missions contracted worth about $7 billion. On the other hand, it would be foolish to count Bezos out; after all, he has built one of the most successful Internet companies in the world. It may be that his focus on suborbital travel is simply a conservative business milestone on the way to a more ambitious vision.
    This really is an epic battle between two visionary tech titans, and whether you're more interested in commercial space flight or simply their exchanges on Twitter, all earthlings win.