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Bezos and Branson Race to Space: Here's What It Means for Investors

By Lou Whiteman - Jun 22, 2021 at 3:12PM

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Is there money to be made from these billionaire adventurers?

Earlier this month, Jeff Bezos announced what he intends to do once he steps down as CEO of Amazon. Bezos intends to travel to space, along with his brother and one other passenger, on the inaugural commercial flight for his Blue Origin rocket start-up.

It's a big moment both for the Bezos brothers and for the nascent commercial space tourism industry. On this clip from Motley Fool Liverecorded on June 10, Motley Fool contributor Lou Whiteman talks with "Industry Focus" host Nick Sciple about what it means for the industry and how investors should view these billionaires shooting for the stars. 

Nick Sciple: It's been a wild year. Space tourism has been pretty hot ever since Virgin Galactic (SPCE -0.56%) came public over a year ago, maybe we're looking at two years now at this point. Space back in the headlines in the past week, Jeff Bezos announcing on Instagram that he and his brother will be among the crew when Blue Origin does its first manned space flight with their New Shepard spacecraft in July. What should we be pay attention to with this story?

Lou Whiteman: July 20th, Jeff Bezos could be launched into space with his brother July 20th if the weather looks good. This is the tortoise and the hare story. We've heard a lot about SpaceX, obviously. We've heard a lot about Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, I mean, you don't not hear about a Jeff Bezos project, but they've just been meandering along at their own pace. Look out, here they are now. If so, he will beat Richard Branson... or he could, we should say. Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic, he had hoped to go last summer for his 70th birthday. A lot went wrong with that timetable, COVID gets part of the blame. But partially, this is complicated and you've got to get it right. It looked like Richard Branson would be our first billionaire in space, Jeff Bezos is going to try and jump the line and get up there next month.

Sciple: It's the battle of the billionaires here. I have tweeted about this, who had Bezos get into space before Musk. Do you feel like this is a chip on the shoulder for the other billionaires in this game?

Whiteman: I think it is, I think it probably matters to them more than it should to us. To that point, Richard Branson said one tweet, "This is great, congratulations" and also tweet, "Hey, I may go on the next test flight in early July. Ha!" We'll see about that because that will take FAA approval, but yeah. This is a big deal and it does matter. We're talking about it. This is a nitch opportunity. Hype is going to matter and it's a very different experience. I think the market may just play out as it does, but this is largely hopes and dreams and hype more than anything, and so it doesn't really matter to me who goes up first, but the fact we're talking about it, the fact that this is creating the buzz, creating the market, it's not insignificant for these guys either.

Sciple: I think it's worth noting. I think to fly on Virgin Galactic, it's like a quarter million dollars to buy a ticket. The addressable market for this really is billionaires fulfilling their childhood dream when we think about who can afford these types of things. It shouldn't really surprise us given the nature of the industry at this point that it's billionaires fighting over who's going to get to space first and probably going to be lots more billionaires before folks like me and you are flying on these spacecrafts. Maybe that goes to the size of the market today, maybe something we wanted to talk about, lots of excitement here. But still, this is a very small market.

Whiteman: This is a small market. I think space tourism, for the time being, is very small, very selective to say with the ticket prices. Also, it remains to be seen once people do this. I mean, I'm sure it's going to be cool to be weightless for a second, but there was a Wall Street Journal story today or the other day talking about the experience. Most people when they get zero gravity for the first time, vomit. [laughs] It's not a great thing we talk about in a business podcast, but it remains to be seen if these initial Yelp reviews [laughs] are like, "Wow, I still want to do this." The bigger market right now is these are serious companies trying serious things to get to space, and there is a market for that with commercial launches with NASA. There were limits to this market, but this old boy network, which was Boeing, Orbital Science which is now owned by Northrop [Grumman]. A couple of players is being disrupted by newcomers, which is both very exciting and very worrisome because it's not a huge market and we're going to have to see how that all plays out.

Sciple: If you're cutting it up into more pieces, then that presents some challenges. I think one of the thing that's interesting is we're moving into this commercial spaced travel universe more and more, assuming Bezos and Branson are successfully able to complete their flights. These are going to be the first paying customers to go on these fights. I guess they paid to start the company, it's not like they're selling outside tickets. But still, this is very new. It's still something that is not regulated by the FAA. I think that'll be a big milestone when we have, this is a mature enough industry that you don't have to sign a waiver to hop on the rocket ship. At what point do you say, "Okay, this isn't an emerging industry and this thing is mature?" Are there any signpost we should be looking for?

Whiteman: I think we're in agreement here and I think you're right. The FAA actually getting involved, I think that would be the good housekeeping seal of approval. There's still going to be mass of waiver. These days there's a mass of waiver almost anywhere. Yes, there's going to be waivers and I think this is one of those businesses that risk and they're going to come in, so I think that is a sign of maturity. I also think it is just a weird market right now for these guys where they are doing things at cost. When we see how these businesses play out, I'm not sure if Bezos has any desire to take Blue Origin public, but reach a critical mass where there's actual results, there's an actual business and we're going to see how big it is. It could squelch some of the dreams of investors. They're going to have to invent markets here, and I think the next stage of this is to see how big those markets can be and how successful they are in finding usage for these things.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Lou Whiteman has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Nick Sciple has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon and Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. The Motley Fool recommends the following options: long January 2022 $1,920 calls on Amazon and short January 2022 $1,940 calls on Amazon. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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