Power Players

NASA astronaut: Jeff Bezos is making the 'most important rocket engine of the 21st century' (not Elon Musk)

Elon Musk has SpaceX. Richard Branson has Virgin Galactic. And Jeff Bezos has Blue Origin.

These titans of entrepreneurship are ushering in a new generation of human spaceflight.

So who's the most important space entrepreneur? "There are different levels of importance," Terry Virts — a NASA astronaut who has spent seven months living in space, commanded the International Space Station and completed three spacewalks — tells CNBC Make It via Skype video conversation in Dec.

As far as getting the public excited about space, "Elon has done a great job with that," Virts says. "[Musk] has lots of big visions."

Photo courtesy Terry Virts

Branson's enthusiasm for space tourism is similarly important, says Virts. "Richard Branson is just fun. … He's a cool guy. That's a cool thing, that is going to inspire people," Virts says.

But when it comes to Bezos, the founder of Amazon and currently the richest person alive, Virts says, "Jeff Bezos is the real deal. His company is legit."

In fact, says Virts, the BE-4 engine Blue Origin is building, "I think is going to be the most important rocket engine of the 21st century. Lots rockets are going to be using it — government rockets, rockets launching telecom satellites and also people," Virts tells CNBC Make It.

"In the long run he's going to really make an an impact on getting to the moon, getting people in space and really impacting the 21st century space economy," says Virts.

Together, the gaggle of elite space entrepreneurs' companies are building the next generation of human spaceflight.

Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, is developing the New Shepard rocket for space tourism.
Blue Origin
Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, is developing the New Shepard rocket for space tourism.

"I've come to this conclusion recently ... We are at the end of the beginning of space flight and that's a really good thing," Virts tells CNBC Make It.

"The beginning of human spaceflight has been about government, it's been about Apollo, space shuttle and space station and Soyuz [the Russian spacecraft]. It's been about nation states having a space program," he says.

Now, "we're moving into a region where companies like SpaceX and especially Blue Origin — they are kind of the underdog ... those companies are so much more innovative, they're so much faster they're so much more visionary."

Equally important is the fact that Bezos "has got some spare change lying around the couch" that he can invest in his space company, as do Musk and Branson. (Bezos is currently worth $130 billion, Musk is worth $22.2 billion, and Branson is worth $4.9 billion, according to Forbes.)

"There's always been smart people with ideas but now they're smart people with ideas and money," Virts says. "I think it's going to be a fundamental shift over the coming years and decades."

"I think we are at that phase where, as Winston Churchill said, 'It's the end of the beginning.' And you know the beginning phase of human spaceflight was great — that's what motivated me to be an astronaut, but I am hopeful that the future will be even better," Virts says.

—Video by Helen Zhao

See also:

Blue Origin will begin selling tickets for spaceflights after first crewed tests, company says

Virgin Galactic flies its first astronauts to the edge of space, taking one step closer to space tourism

What it's like to travel to space, from a tourist who spent $30 million to live there for 12 days