The excitement on Jeff Bezos' face was obvious. "I want to go on this flight because it's a thing I've wanted to do all my life," he said in a video posted on Instagram this week. "It's a big deal for me."
The world's richest man, who has amassed a fortune of US$186 billion ($259b), this week revealed he would travel into space next month using a reusable rocket developed by his company Blue Origin.
His enthusiasm comes as little surprise; Bezos says he has dreamed of going into space since the age of 5. But sweeter still than achieving a childhood dream? Beating his billionaire peers in their race to space.
The main challenger to Bezos' potential crown is Elon Musk, whose company SpaceX is hoping to put astronauts on the moon by 2024, and Mars soon after. Sir Richard Branson has also been targeting a personal space flight as soon as next month, with rumours circulating on social media that he was seeking to take a Virgin Galactic trip on the weekend of July 4 — 16 days earlier than the Amazon founder's intended launch date.
Bezos, 57, is a self-confessed space fanatic, who once appeared in the film Star Trek Beyond in a cameo dressed as an alien, and set up Blue Origin, into which he funnels $1.3b from Amazon shares each year.
"You see it with a lot of the tech guys," says Ashlee Vance, author of Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. "They're of the generation of people who grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars and loads of sci-fi novels.
"Through a twist of good fortune, they've ended up as the wealthiest humans on the planet and actually have the resources to make their childhood dreams come true. It's an expected outcome when engineers with a geeky bent have risen to the top of society."
No wonder then that Bezos will celebrate stepping down from his chief executive role at Amazon next month by flying to space a fortnight later, on the anniversary of the Apollo moon landings.
For he, Musk and Branson, galactic travel is a battle of egos and wealth. According to Tim Fernholz, author of Rocket Billionaires, both Silicon Valley founders "share the fundamental view that going to space is vital for humanity. But their end goals differ substantially."
Bezos, he says, sees much of human industry moving into space while preserving Earth, such as with space mining. Musk, on the other hand, is dedicated to expansion into the stars as a fail-safe. In his own words, mankind risks "a giant war, a super volcano, or comet ... we might just self-extinguish. And right now, civilisation is not looking strong."
The rival companies have found themselves increasingly at loggerheads. In April, the US Government awarded a US$2.9b contract for its moon lander project to SpaceX, despite furious protests from Blue Origin. It has already launched more than 120 rockets to Blue Origin's 15, and is now Nasa's preferred launcher.
The space market is expected to be worth about US$1 trillion by 2040 — while most of this is in industry, launches and satellites, space tourism is also taking off: 43 per cent of Brits say they would take an orbital flight (if safe return was guaranteed), according to YouGov survey.
Bezos, who will make the trip with his brother Mark, is also auctioning off the third seat in the spacecraft — for which bidding has topped US$4.4 million. Following the flight, tickets will be on public sale — although prices have yet to be revealed.
It is not the only mission looking to attract the public: Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has bought eight extra seats aboard Musk's flight for his own mission, entitled dearMoon; SpaceX also has a US$76m contract to fly tourists to the International Space Station in 2022, while US billionaire Jared Isaacman is donating three seats on board a SpaceX flight to civilians.
Later this year, 49-year-old Musk's company plans to take four civilians into orbit on board its Dragon Crew spaceship, which will allow the "first-ever crew of people who aren't professional astronauts to orbit the Earth for three days".
The Bezos brothers' 11-minute flight will take them above the 100-kilometre Karman line (which marks the recognised boundary between Earth's atmosphere and space) and see them attain weightlessness for two minutes, before their capsule drops back down to Earth. It is sure to be life-changing — for them, and the rivals intensifying their own efforts as a result.
Sir Richard, worth an estimated US$5 billion, plans to fly on a Virgin Galactic flight to suborbital space during the second half of this year, if not before. The 70-year-old's company was founded in 2004, after Blue Origin and SpaceX, and is developing a spacecraft capable of sending clients on suborbital flights. A specialised carrier plane, WhiteKnightTwo, will help take its SpaceShipTwo to the edge of space, where passengers will enjoy views of Earth during "true, unencumbered weightlessness".
It completed its third test flight to the edge of space last month, and plans to send tourists into space next year; some 600 people have booked a seat, each costing US$280,000 to US$350,000.
Musk, whose net worth comes in at US$210 billion, is gearing up to go far bigger, working on orbital flights that would cost millions of dollars and send people much further into space. "I've said I want to die on Mars, just not on impact," he said in 2013; in May, SpaceX successfully tested a landing of its heavyweight 49m Starship rocket, which he believes could reach the red planet by 2026. (Nasa points to a more conservative 2033 timeline.)
So, who will be victorious in the race for space victory?
"It would seem that Elon Musk is ahead at the moment," says Shagun Sachdeva, a space consultant at Kosmic Apple, which works with space start-ups. "However, Blue Origin can in no way be discounted as they have a very different and longer-term strategy. This space race is far from over."
But with Bezos plotting to reach the Karman line next month, Musk and Branson have been left with their feet on planet Earth — at least, for now.
Quieter brother comes out of the shadows
If you are the younger brother of Jeff Bezos — the richest human being in modern history; so loaded he could give everybody on the planet a tenner and still be a multi-billionaire; a man who has changed the way the planet shops forever; an entrepreneur with his fingers in more pies than [UK ready meals boss] Charlie Bigham yet who is, to all intents and purposes, just a Bond villain in a gilet — you could only go in one of three directions in life.
First, you could join him. A bloke like our Jeffrey, who earns US$3537 ($4918) every second, is probably hiring, so he could at least give you a job as his chief impact officer, or something. You'd never need to work again, and Jeff would have someone in the boardroom who really gets him, like how Kim Jong-un likes to keep his siblings in-house: it's easier to keep an eye on them there.
Second, you could try to take him down, or build a rival company called, I don't know, "Nile". This is a very bad idea, because of the whole Bond villain thing. And thirdly, you could just be low-key, unencumbered by the same level of ambition, and let Jeff take the limelight. The Mike McGear to his Paul McCartney. The Mycroft to his Sherlock. The Edward to his Andrew.
For most of his adult life, Mark Bezos has opted for the third path. Without offending his older sibling, he neither gets in the way of Jeff's business, nor seems jealous, nor seeks to join it. They are on different orbits ...
Or they were. Now, Jeff has coerced Mark, 53, into joining him on the first crewed flight of the New Shepard, the rocket ship made by his space company, Blue Origin. The flight is scheduled for July 20, a fortnight after he resigns as chief executive of Amazon. A boozy weekend at the Goodwood Festival of Speed was never going to cut it as a leaving blowout, was it?
"I want to go on this flight because it's a thing I've wanted to do all my life, it's an adventure, it's a big deal for me," Bezos — in his little gilet — says in an Instagram video released this week. "I invited my brother to come on this first flight because we're closest friends."
The video then cuts to Jeff, now in a cowboy hat and aviators, sitting having a drink with Mark, before he abruptly asks him to join him.
"Are you serious?" Mark says, with the kind of wide-eyed panic of a woman being proposed to in a busy restaurant and unable to decline without upsetting everyone.
"I am, I think it would be meaningful," Bezos replies, a little weirdly.
So, whether Mark likes it or not, the Bezos Bros are going to (inner) space. And they do, apparently, get on famously. Five years the Amazon founder's junior, Mark and his sister, Christina, have a different biological father, but grew up together as they moved between Albuquerque, Texas and Florida.
While Jeff went on to take over the world, trampling all in his path as he went, Mark has done the opposite. Not only is he a director of the Bezos Family Foundation, but his day job is split between serving on leadership boards for education and poverty-fighting charities, and as a volunteer firefighter in New York (he also founded a private equity firm, but we will forget that).
Mark is reportedly married with four children, and has the kind of easy, confident demeanour and naturally thick-set build that might perhaps inspire a nerdy, weedier sibling persistently to feel he needs to prove his worth by rapaciously accruing more and more wealth by, at times, questionable means, obsess over weightlifting in midlife, or build phallic spacecrafts and force family members aboard.
He's also funnier.
"If anyone's confused, I'm the one with the smaller bank account," he remarked, appearing at a live event with Jeff four years ago.
"HA HA HA," Jeff bellowed, "he's the big brother."
When they are together, Jeff went on to say, "I just laugh continuously."
So space ought to be a hoot, which is the main thing, because there can't be many people who'd want to share an 18-metre, sealed, pilotless tin can with their brother, no matter how close they are.
As any parent knows, getting through a long car journey — nay, a 15-minute fish finger dinner — without one sibling punching the other is a challenge, and that's brothers that get on.
I give it three minutes of the total 11-minute flight time before Jeff accuses Mark of farting, Mark denies it, then Jeff unbuckles his little space gilet and tries to put Mark in a headlock.
"I was just awestruck," Mark says in that Instagram video, reflecting on the invitation. "What a remarkable opportunity, not only to have this adventure, but to be able to do it with my best friend."
The video's caption ends with "#GradatimFerociter": step by step, ferociously. That's the spirit. To infinity, and beyond. Just remember to play nice.