and super yachts.
Among the tech elite,
space exploration is now
the ultimate status symbol
At 9.07am on 1 September,
a SpaceX rocket containing 75,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and
rocket-grade kerosene ignited into a fireball that could be seen
from orbit, billowing black smoke into the gray sky around its Cape
Canaveral launch pad.
Zuckerberg wrote, with a note of bitterness, on his Facebook page that he was,
SpaceX founder Elon Musk told CNN it was the "most difficult and complex failure" the 14-year-old company had ever experienced.
It was also the second dramatic explosion in nine months for SpaceX, following a "rapid unscheduled disassembly" of a booster rocket as it attempted to land after a successful mission to the International Space Station.
Later that day, NASA's official Twitter account responded:
Yet despite those challenges, a small band of billionaire technocrats have spent the past few years investing hundreds of millions of dollars into space ventures.
Forget gilded mansions and super yachts; among the tech elite, space exploration is the ultimate status symbol.
Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002, is arguably the most visible billionaire in the new space race. The apparent inspiration for Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark character in Iron Man, Musk has become a god-like figure for engineers, making his fortune at PayPal and then as CEO of luxury electric car firm Tesla and clean energy company Solar City.
Yet it is his galactic ambitions, insiders say, that really motivate him.
SpaceX has completed 32 successful launches since 2006, delivered cargo to the International Space Station and secured more than $10bn in contracts with NASA and other clients.
Musk has much grander ambitions, though, saying he plans to create a "plan B" for humanity in case Earth ultimately fails.
He once famously joked that he hoped to die on Mars - just not on impact.
The alternative to extinction is to become 'multi-planetary'
Musk has outlined an ambitious timeline for colonizing the red planet, which he said could begin as soon as 2022.
Speaking to the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico in September, Musk described a 400-foot-tall rocket that would ferry 100 colonists at a time to Mars over a period of decades.
Cape Canaveral, December 2013:
SpaceX successfully completes its first geostationary transfer mission,
delivering the SES-8 satellite to its targeted orbit.
Photograph: Toby Smith/Getty Images
Ashlee Vance, longtime tech journalist and author of Elon Musk - Tesla, Space, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, thinks these ambitions are driven by a mix of entrepreneurial curiosity, altruism and a dash of egotism.
And no one more so than Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his estimated fortune of $67bn.
Blue Origin, which he founded in 2000 and kept secret until 2006, has also unveiled plans for its New Glenn launch vehicle, a 270ft rocket capable of carrying passengers to Mars.
The company has made a dozen test launches, including October's test of the in-flight escape system for the unashamedly phallic New Shepard rocket.
Blue Origin landed a small contract with NASA to conduct suborbital research missions in June 2015, but has yet to complete a commercial flight. In June 2016, Bezos told reporters Blue Origin would begin test flights carrying humans next year.
He ends many of his emails and tweets with the Blue Origin motto "Gradatim Ferociter" - "Step by step, ferociously".
Altruism, or egotism?
At a conference in June, Bezos compared the new space industry to the early days of the internet - likening it to how the fiber optic cable laid for voice communications in the 1960s and 1970s ultimately paved the way for today's
Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos
announces plans to build a rocket manufacturing plant
and launch site at Cape Canaveral.
Bezos is interested in an unlimited future economy where much of our manufacturing takes place in space, sparing Earth from pollution.
Bezos and Musk have developed an intense personal rivalry, says Ashlee Vance.
Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX:
'His passion is settling Mars.'
Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
In 2013, SpaceX and Blue Origin fought over control of a NASA launch pad and a patent for landing rockets at sea; Musk won both tussles.
When Blue Origin tried to block SpaceX from using the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Musk emailed Space News slamming the company and questioning its ability to build a rocket that would meet NASA standards.
After a successful Blue Origin test launch and landing in November 2015, Bezos used his first ever tweet to boast about "the rarest of beasts - a used rocket".
One month later Bezos threw a little shade back at Musk, after a SpaceX Falcon rocket duplicated Blue Origin's feat of achieving a vertical landing of its reusable rocket:
Whether driven by a desire to do good or simply to burnish their legacy ultimately doesn't matter, says Hannah Kerner, executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation, a non-profit that promotes human settlement in space.
Spats aside, Musk and Bezos share something else in common:
Like many of us, they assumed that 40 years after man landed on the Moon, humans would be taking vacation cruises into space and establishing colonies on Mars.
The reality, however, was much more down to Earth.
Instead of sending humans to explore the heavens, NASA sent unmanned probes to fly by planets. Much of its budget went to the International Space Station and the space shuttle for ferrying supplies and astronauts.
The US space program began to look less like Star Trek and more like a really expensive interplanetary UPS.
Make space exploration cheaper
The main barrier was cost.
Emerging from Earth's gravitational field and punching through the atmosphere is an expensive proposition. NASA claims the average cost of a shuttle launch is around $450m, though a 2011 analysis by researchers at the University of Colorado put the figure closer to $1.5bn.
All told, the 30-year space shuttle program cost nearly $200bn before it was shuttered in July 2011. To make space a viable destination for private companies and individuals, the costs have to be dramatically reduced.
Enter Silicon Valley's billionaire space explorers, who hope to disrupt the traditional aerospace industry with entrepreneurialism and modern manufacturing techniques.
The International Space Station.
NASA's focus on the ISS has left it
to tech entrepreneurs to dream up wilder ideas.
Photograph: NASA/Getty Images
Musk and Bezos are trying to save tens of millions of dollars by reusing the hugely expensive launch vehicles, rather than jettisoning them to burn up in the atmosphere.
They are right to try and solve that problem, says Dr Sean Casey, managing director of the Silicon Valley Space Center, an incubator for new space start-ups.
SpaceX prices its Falcon 9 rocket at around $60m per launch.
The larger Falcon Heavy, which can reach higher orbits, is priced at $90m. Neither figure includes savings gained by re-using them. SpaceX has successfully recovered six rockets it fired into orbit, but has yet to send any of them up a second time.
SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell has said the price of a Falcon 9 launch could drop another 30% when the booster is re-used.
Privately held Blue Origin has not publicly stated what its launches will cost, and declined to comment.
With a 385 feet (107 meters) wingspan, it can carry 1,000lb (454kg) satellites to high altitude and launch them into low Earth orbit. Vulcan has not released estimates on what its flights will cost, though a spokesperson for the company says it hopes to be fully operational by the end of the decade.
Branson's Virgin Galactic launched in 2004, promoting short suborbital flights to civilians in the hopes of creating a space tourism industry.
More than 700 passengers have already paid around $250,000 for advance tickets for Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip Two, reportedly including Tom Hanks, Ashton Kutcher and Leonardo DiCaprio, though the date of the first commercial flight has not been announced.
Using the same carrier aircraft, it also plans to deliver small, 200lb (91kg) satellites. The cost is around $10m, or one-sixth the cost of a SpaceX flight, but it has not announced when either service will be available.
Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner - named after Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space - has a different approach. In April 2015 he announced $100m investment for research into using lasers to fling tiny robots towards the stars at one-fifth the speed of light.
The Digital Sky Technologies founder hopes his Breakthrough Starshot initiative will develop spacecraft that can reach Alpha Centauri, the closest star to our solar system, within 20 years.
Richard Branson with a Virgin Galactic space aircraft
at the company's Mojave desert headquarters.
Photograph: Barry J Holmes for the Observer
If success in the earthbound technology industry is hard to obtain, in space it's literally a long shot.
Though the vast majority of SpaceX flights have been successful, it's the disasters that give shareholders pause and makes potential passengers nervous.
(The company recently completed its
investigation into the cause of the September launch pad explosion,
and says the next Falcon 9 mission will likely take place next
In space exploration, hyperbole often overtakes reality.
George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company, told the Guardian in 2014 that the company was little more than a marketing organization before 2010, and now it's able to design and build its own rockets.
But it is very early days. The 700-odd passengers who coughed up serious coin for tickets into sub-orbit are still waiting, six years after Branson initially predicted Virgin Galactic would take flight.
As of writing, Blue Origin's rockets have not yet made it into orbit.
The Stratolauncher won't be fully operational for several years, and it may take decades before anyone designs a system that can propel man-made objects through space fast enough to reach a star over a human being's lifespan, if it happens at all.
Simon "Pete" Worden, former director of NASA's Ames Research Center, is known as Silicon Valley's "space guy". He's had many extended discussions with Musk about his space ambitions, as well as the rest of the space elite.
Each has a sci-fi geek's passion for space, he says, but their practical motivations are all slightly different.
For ambitious entrepreneurs and would-be world changers, Earth is last year's news.
Space is the place they want to be...