It's also about who NASA thinks is the real winner as a result of the billionaire space race, and what that means for you.
I'm going to try to tell it all quickly because I hope you'll finish reading, and then have the chance to watch Branson as he and five other people blast off this morning to the edge of space, aboard Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity.
I've embedded the link to watch at the bottom of this article. So, in the interest of time, we'll start the story on July 20, 1969, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the lunar surface.
Branson was 19 when he watched that moment; Bezos was 5. Both men say the experience was a watershed moment in their lives.
Fast-forward through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and the early 2000s.
Musk was born, Branson became a billionaire, Bezos founded Amazon. All three men used some of their wealth to launch rocket and space exploration companies.
Here's where each stands:
- Branson will take off in a matter of hours as I write this. He and his fellow travelers will ultimately ascend to about 55 miles above the surface of the Earth for their suborbital journey, possibly giving Branson bragging rights for being the first billionaire to reach space.
- I say "possibly," because later this month, Bezos plans to fly aboard Blue Origin's New Shepard, along with his brother Mark Bezos, original Mercury 13 aviator Wally Funk, and the winner of a $28 million auction. If all goes according to plan, they'll reach about 65 miles above the Earth -- also a suborbital trip.
As Bezos's Blue Origin has taken to repeating, however, the 10 miles or so might make a big difference, because New Shepard will pass the Karman line, 62 miles above the Earth, and Unity won't.
This is where international aeronautic and astronautic federations in Europe recognize the official boundary between the Earth and space. Other arbiters, such as NASA and the U.S. Air Force, put the space boundary at just 50 miles; so it's not a settled question.
- Against all this, add Musk, who reportedly began his Mars Oasis project, and then SpaceX, with the goal of reducing the cost of space travel and inspiring others. While he hasn't announced plans to fly to space himself yet, SpaceX has so far achieved much more ambitious goals than either Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin.
As Musk tweeted last month: "There is a big difference between reaching space and reaching orbit."
I'm rooting for Branson today, and for Bezos later this month, and for Musk--and I'm doing so even though it sounds a bit unflattering when multibillionaires squabble over which among them achieves the most important things first.
But, at the same time, that's what the original space race was largely about: the United States and the old U.S.S.R. battling for bragging rights about which nation had better technology and could achieve more important milestones than the other.
And as journalist Marcia Dunn observes, this kind of competition among billionaires is almost exactly what NASA hoped would happen when the space shuttle was retired a decade ago, and the government began to rely on private companies for payload and human transportation to space.
"The way I see it is the more, the better, right?" Phil McAlister, NASA's commercial spaceflight director, told the Associated Press. "More, better."
I don't think most normal people care whether Bezos, Branson, or Musk is ultimately the most successful or important titan in space. The real winners are everyone else--humanity writ large--that benefits from progress.
And that's the key lesson to keep in mind as you run your business, too. It's not just about what you achieve. It's also about the unpredictable progress you prompt others to achieve as a result of your example--just like Bezos and Branson say they were motivated by watching the moon landing 52 years ago.
Watch Branson's liftoff below. And keep in mind, always, that your real legacy might be as much about inspiration as it is about specific accomplishments.