It was a week in which two space-faring billionaires tussled again in their futuristic game of cosmic oneupmanship. And this time, for once, Elon Musk was not at the party.
The declaration that Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and world’s richest man, was heading into space next month on the first crewed launch of his Blue Origin New Shepard rocket was followed quickly by an apparent leak from within Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic empire that the British tycoon might look to upstage him with a Fourth of July Independence Day spectacular of his own.
Branson’s team was quick to downplay the possibility, insisting a date for his first spaceflight had yet to be determined. But beyond what some might see as vain billionaires using real-life rockets as playthings, the episode underscores how close the lucrative yet still fledgling commercial space industry has come to routinely launching paying passengers into outer space and achieving a goal two decades in the making.
On Saturday, the winner of an auction for a seat to accompany Bezos and his brother Mark on next month’s big space adventure will be announced on the Blue Origin website. On Thursday, the bidding reached $4.2m for the 11-minute round trip.
“Many congratulations to Jeff Bezos & his brother Mark on announcing spaceflight plans,” Branson said in a tweet directed at his rival. “Jeff started building @blueorigin in 2000, we started building @virgingalactic in 2004 & now both are opening up access to Space – how extraordinary! Watch this space … ”
Absent from Branson’s tweet was any mention of Musk, whose nonconformist Space Exploration Technologies Corporation – better known as SpaceX – has grown from a shaky start in 2002 to become the dominant player in the commercial space sector, and a key partner of the US space agency, Nasa. The company is already regularly flying astronauts to the international space station, and is renting out its Dragon space capsule this fall for its first private spaceflight, taking a crew of four on a three-day orbital odyssey.
With differing longer-term ambitions and goals, the three billionaires have collectively upended the traditional government-funded and directed model for human spaceflight and are shaping a thriving new commercial space era, according to Matthew Weinzierl, a Harvard Business School professor and an expert in the economics of space.
“SpaceX’s recent achievements, as well as upcoming efforts by Boeing, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic to put people in space sustainably and at scale, mark the opening of a new chapter of spaceflight led by private firms,” he said.
“They have both the intention and capability to bring private citizens to space as passengers, tourists and eventually settlers, opening the door for businesses to start meeting the demand those people create over the next several decades.”
Weinzierl expects there to be a gradual shift from money spent in space to benefit Earth, such as investments in telecommunications and internet satellites and infrastructure, to the so-called space-for-space economy, including mining asteroids or the moon for materials that will be necessary to support human habitat and fuel deeper-space missions to Mars or beyond.
Bezos and Musk always had loftier goals in mind, even as they were taking their first tentative steps in the space industry, experts say. But their visions diverge beyond flying humans in low Earth orbit, or even suborbital flight, as Bezos’s brief July venture will be.
“Musk is totally about Mars. His passion is to get people to Mars as a backup plan to Earth, and to make humanity a multi-planet species,” said Marcia Smith, founder and senior analyst of spacepolicyonline.com.
“Bezos is interested in the moon, and in the space between Earth and the moon. He wants to move all of the heavy industry off Earth and into cislunar space. He talks about rezoning Earth for light industry and habitation.
“So they both are interested in trying to save Earth because of all the problems Earth is having, but they have very different visions as to how that’s going to happen.”
Nasa has embraced both billionaires as it pursues its own exploration programs. In April, the agency chose SpaceX to build the spacecraft to return humans to the moon for the first time since 1972, a decision Blue Origin has challenged. The enigmatic Musk reacted in typically bellicose fashion, tweeting: “Can’t get it up (to orbit) lol” in reference to Bezos’s so far unsuccessful efforts to launch a crew into space.
Blue Origin, meanwhile, is developing a separate, reusable heavy-lift launch vehicle, New Glenn, under a Nasa contract to supply satellite delivery capability, although the project has stalled.
The operations of both companies have the potential to attract billions of dollars of investment to the US through commercial clients, and Weinzierl sees space as the “ultimate industry of the future”, though he says it may take longer than this century to reach its potential.
“The sector has changed a great deal over the last two decades, largely in that there are new competitors seeking to serve private customers in addition to governments,” he said.
“At the same time, Nasa and other public agencies are still the dominant sources of funding and specific plans for space beyond low Earth orbit, where the private satellite market has long been active. Even SpaceX, for all its success, wouldn’t be where it is without Nasa’s partnership.”
Smith argues that Musk has created his own luck to position SpaceX as the leading pioneer in the new private space market.
“Musk has really transformed the business, and brought commercial business back to the United States, by lower prices and reusability. He has really made a change,” she said.
“Bezos is trying to build this New Glenn rocket and is having setbacks with the engine.”
John Logsdon, the respected professor emeritus at George Washington University and founder of the Space Policy Institute, phrased the differences between the two tycoons another way, in a 2018 interview with the Guardian.
“Musk’s style is to brag about things and then do them. Bezos’s style is to do things and then brag about them,” he said.
“I’d call it competition, and competition is the American way of life.”
As for Branson, the Virgin founder scored a major success last month when his SpaceShipTwo rocketplane reached an altitude of 55.4 miles, either in space or at the edge of it, depending on which calculation of the Karman Line, the perceived boundary of outer space, is being used. It brings his long-awaited but much-delayed aspiration of a profitable space tourism business a significant step closer to realization.
How relevant the Bezos brothers’ flight aboard New Shepard, his rocket named as a tribute to Alan Shepard, the first American in space, will be to Blue Origin’s wider ambitions is open to question, although Weinzierl, the Harvard professor, sees it as more than a publicity stunt.
“It’s about demonstrating in the most powerful way he can that he trusts in the technology,” he said.
Qualtrics CEO Zig Serafin sat down with Silicon Republic editor Elaine Burke to discuss his leadership style as an expert in experience management.
It has been an eventful few years for US tech company Qualtrics, and not least because of the pandemic.
The company founded by a family out of Utah was bought by SAP in 2018 for $8bn. It then went public in January 2021 with a successful IPO that valued the company at $15bn. That same year then saw Qualtrics earn $1bn in revenue for its experience management technology. But what is experience management?
CEO Zig Serafin says it’s the “ultimate advantage” for modern businesses. It’s about tuning in to the needs and desires of customers and taking action on that knowledge “with empathy, with speed and at scale”.
Serafin was in Dublin recently while on a tour across Europe meeting with Qualtrics clients. He spoke with SiliconRepublic.com for our Conversations with Leaders series shortly after checking in on the company’s new office in the Irish capital.
Qualtrics’ already substantial footprint a stone’s throw from St Stephen’s Green is expanding in response to the company’s global growth. “Dublin is the epicentre of how we operate across Europe,” said Serafin, and this European HQ is fully equipped with all the fixings of the modern tech office and more – including its own pub.
But Serafin said Qualtrics, a company obsessed with creating optimal experiences, knows that these days workplaces need to offer flexibility and the ability to work from home as well as a workspace that provides a “home from home”.
“Both experiences are important,” he said. “That digital experience and the physical experience, and how they come together.”
Qualtrics’ own research shows that it can take just one negative experience to lose a customer, or an employee, and with the sheer array of tools available to businesses today, it is possible to continuously track and improve experiences. But possible doesn’t mean easy.
There’s plenty of data available – from user analytics to customer support chats to online sentiment analysis and everything in between. And while Qualtrics has all the software and AI capabilities to parse this information and make it not just digestible but actionable, Serafin said the secret sauce is something altogether more human.
“At the end of the day it comes down to this notion of empathy,” he said. And that’s the throughline of Serafin’s leadership, too.
In our interview, he expressed how empathy (and a helping of TACOS) is at the core of Qualtrics. He also shared what he learned about leadership from his early years on the family farm through to 17 years at Microsoft, where he faced a review with Bill Gates in his first week on the job.
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This week marks a truly important video game anniversary: it is 50 years since Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney incorporated Atari Inc, the company that laid the foundations for the video games industry. There have been many appraisals of the company and its landmark achievements in the games press over the past few days – from the arrival of a Pong machine in Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California, in 1972, through classic titles such as Breakout, Asteroids and Missile Commands, to the iconic home consoles. So many moments of creative genius, so many genres, concepts and conventions bursting into existence at the hands of scruffy engineers and designers such as Ed Logg, Larry Kaplan and Dona Bailey.
But one element that often gets overlooked in these nostalgic reveries is the way in which Atari taught the first generation of electronic gamers how to think symbolically. With two rectangles and a square, Pong invited us to visualise tennis, while Night Driver’s series of moving rectangles convinced us we were driving a car. Some will point to the 1972 console the Magnavox Odyssey as the originator of these concepts, but it was Atari putting them in arcade machines – and later consoles –all over the world.
It was also Atari that generated a whole universe around its simple games. Through beautiful cabinet designs, expert use of iconography and graphic design, and the gorgeous illustrations on its Atari VCS cartridges, the company sought to simulate the imagination of players before they even held the controller. The boxes for titles such as Berzerk and Defender, all highly abstract and visually simple games, were alive with drama; they showed human characters, explosions and colours that were impossible to achieve on screen at the time, quietly providing players with the imaginative tools they needed to become immersed. Would we have cared so much about the fate of the lifeless rock at the base of the screen in Missile Command if it hadn’t been for George Opperman’s package art? The tense commander at his desk, the explosions, the missiles seemingly scorching out of the box itself …
It was George Opperman who also designed Atari’s now legendary logo, consisting of three simple lines, the two exterior shafts curving inwards toward the peak. Over the years Opperman claimed many influences for his design – Mount Fuji, Japanese alphabet symbols, Pong itself – personally, I’ve always viewed it as a spaceship. But it’s how the image seems to sum up the excitement and futuristic promise of the company that really matters. When we see the logo flash briefly on the screen in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, it’s a quick visual signifier that this is a highly technological landscape. It fits in perfectly with a world of androids and flying cars.
Nolan Bushnell saw how video games could naturally bleed from the screen into real space, meat space. During the 1970s, the industry started in pubs and taverns, then moved into arcades and eventually the home, and they had effects on all of them: they changed behaviours and got written into our lives in subtle ways. His introduction of the Chuck E Cheese pizza restaurant chain, which combined family eating with a video game arcade, brilliantly monetised the ways that games, although graphically simple, had worked their way from the TV screen to dinner table conversation. We laugh about how the original VCS console had wood panelling, but this was a deliberate attempt to ape the aesthetics of the 1970s living room, with its wooden furniture, TV and stereo cabinets. Atari understood that assimilation would be a vital element of success.
Even now, in this age of near photorealism, video games rely on the kind of abstractions that Atari perfected. The heart symbols to denote the number of lives we have left; the heavy use of icons and exterior narratives; the endless references to familiar cinema tropes. We saw Atari being played on TV shows and films, we saw Atari in comics. While its games were still being drawn with two sprites each a single byte in size, the iconography of Atari was out there in the world. It’s something Nintendo would learn from, and later Sony, with its cultural melting pot of a console: the PlayStation. Atari was a myth maker too: from the Easter egg hidden in Adventure to the buried copies of E.T. in the California desert, the company itself became a source of digital folklore that took on meanings beyond anything portrayed on your TV.
50 years ago, Atari began to show us that games exist in a strange liminal space between the screen and the brain, and they are constantly able to escape. The dots on the screen are only ever part of the picture, and the picture never stops moving.
What to play
While we’re in a nostalgic mood, I’m really enjoying Capcom Fighting Collection. You’d probably expect a dozen famous titles from the Street Fighter series, but that’s already been covered by Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection. Instead, we get five games from the spooky, goth-infused Darkstalkers series, the mid-1990s fantasy-themed Red Earth and a bunch of offbeat Street Fighter dalliances including the ridiculously compelling Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, which brilliantly combined fighting game dynamics with … Tetris. The games are filled with blistering attacks and truly imaginative character designs, all lovingly updated for the modern era.
Available on: PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One Approximate playtime: As long as you want
What to read
Eurogamer is running a whole series of features for Pride, including this piece talking to Captain Fluke about being the first openly trans esports commentator and this one on the joy of gay fan faction and mods. Elsewhere, IGN has listed its favourite ever LGBT+ characters in video games.
Verge has a really interesting piece on a group of creatives making branded worlds for big companies in Fortnite. Everyone talks about Facebook when referencing the coming era of the metaverse, but I’m pretty sure Fortnite is going to be just as important as an explorable shared space for interconnected worlds – and the advertising potential therein.
We also found out this week that Hidetaka Miyazaki, the creative genius behind Dark Souls and Elden Ring, is almost finished on his next project. This is good news for me as, after 225 hours, I’m nearing the end of Elden Ring and would be very happy to slide straight into his next game if possible.
If I’ve got you interested in Atari’s design and illustration philosophy, The Art of Atari by Tim Lapetino is a gorgeous book. For a more technical analysis of the company, try Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost.
This week’s question comes from Tim and his daughter Caitlin, and is answered by Keza:
“We got really into Hades over lockdown, loving the ‘it’s the same each time but really different too’ concept as well as the lore and the artwork. Can you recommend a similar game that we could play together?”
Hades is what’s known as a roguelike – one of those games where you have to start again from the beginning each time, but each playthrough throws different challenges at you – and, happily for you both, this genre has been having a moment over the past few years. Hades is a contender for the very best game in this genre, so it’s hard to rival, but here are some others to try.
Dead Cells is a kind of cyberpunk-fantasy action game where you gradually explore a shapeshifting castle; Spelunky 2 has you delving down below the Earth through caves full of amusing hazards, and has a great sense of humour (you can also play co-op); Into the Breach is something a little different, a strategy game where you have to defend the world from hostile invaders, travelling back in time after each failed attempt. And for a story and art style as good as that of Hades with a different gameplay feel, try developer Supergiant’s previous games Pyre,Transistor and Bastion, if you haven’t already.
China is claiming that as of Wednesday, its Tianwen-1 Mars orbiter has officially photographed the entire Red Planet. And it’s shown off new photos of the southern polar cap and a volcano to prove it.
“It has acquired the medium-resolution image data covering the whole globe of Mars, with all of its scientific payloads realizing a global survey,” state-sponsored media quoted the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announcing.
Among the images are one of Mount Askra with its crater, shots of the South Pole whose ice sheet is believed to consist of solid carbon dioxide and ice, the seven-kilometer deep Valles Marineris canyon, and the geomorphological characteristics of the rim of the Mund crater.
Mount Askela. Click to enlarge
Mars South Pole. Click to enlarge
Valles Marineris. Click to enlarge
Mund crater. Click to enlarge
Tianwen-1 had been in orbit around Mars for 706 days. The orbiter circled Mars 1,344 times, as of an announcement from CNSA. The space org said Tianwen-1 has completed its scheduled missions.
In conjunction with its rover Zhurong, Tianwen-1 amassed 1,040 gigabytes of raw scientific data through 13 onboard scientific payloads.
The mission has allowed CNSA to observe solar occultation and solar wind together with international observatories – including those in Russia, Germany, Italy, Australia and South Africa – to improve the accuracy of space weather forecasts. Good news for Matt Damon.
CNSA said it will share more scientific data with the international community in due course.
In December, Zhurong and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft performed an in-orbit relay communication test to demonstrate it was possible to relay data from Zhurong back to Earth via Mars Express. The demonstration was successful, if a bit complicated – Mars Express had to “listen” for Zhurong since the rover was unable to communicate directly because the frequencies used don’t match.
Even though the mission is officially over, the orbiter and rover are still in working order. The orbiter will stay in orbit and continue its remote sensing and data relay activities while Zhurong will hibernate until weather conditions improve – likely in December. ®