At Nasa's Kennedy Space Centre on Florida's "Space Coast", sell-out crowds witnessed Elon Musk launch his Mega Rocket into space, to the tune of the late David Bowie's Space Oddity. Minutes later, two of the rocket's boosters landed back on Earth, the sonic booms so loud that birds flocked away.

Nearby, employees at Amazon founder Jeff Bezos's space company, Blue Origin, would have been able to witness their competitor's lift-off. Musk hopes eventually to use the Falcon Heavy rocket to send people to Mars; Bezos dreams of having "millions of people living and working in space", moving manufacturing away from our planet as a solution to pollution.

Almost 50 years since the Apollo Moon landings, our world has been transformed by space exploration, with humans continually in orbit since the year 2000. Yet, their plans still sound like science fiction.

But now a new era is upon us, and the inaugural flight of the Falcon Heavy is the culmination of a very different kind of space race. Instead of governments, it is private individuals and venture-funded companies competing to transform the way we explore. This may be nothing new. If the Apollo Moon landings can be compared to Columbus reaching the Americas, this is the "Mayflower" moment.

Advertisement

Beneath the slick Bowie soundtrack and giddy excitement, however, Musk and his rivals can seem like Bond villains hell-bent on an ego trip of intergalactic proportions. What exactly will these billionaires do with their fleets of rockets? And what power will they possess if they can, eventually, settle human colonies on Mars and mine the asteroid belt?

Competition has always driven innovation and we can only hope that their goal is to use space for the good of humankind. And there are reasons to be optimistic.

Musk and Bezos - and other wealthy individuals - are betting their fortunes on space because it matters, because they know that stasis is not good for us. The exploration of space is the most significant thing we will do as a species. To date, our quest for the stars has transformed our understanding of our planet, advancing medical science, environmental studies and technology.

Some of the greatest treasures to come from space exploration are in the realm of art. The Blue Marble image of Earth as a distant planet in the blackness of space, taken by astronauts on Apollo 17 as they travelled to the Moon in 1972, changed the way we thought about ourselves.

And what greater example of modern art could there be than a Starman in a SpaceX spacesuit flying through space in a scarlet red electric car? The car provided the payload needed to test the rocket, and the spacesuit is being tested for use by humans - but it got us all talking about space. You cannot measure the inspiration generated by that image.

Lives will be lost, fortunes will be made, but space is worth the risk - even if that risk (and some rewards) are taken by the likes of Musk and Bezos. One day launches like the Falcon Heavy will be taken for granted, just as we take for granted jumping on a plane.