To describe Sir Richard Branson as a successful entrepreneur is perhaps an understatement, but the world knows that billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos tops that category. However, when it comes to sub-orbital space flight, the pair are almost neck and neck in their ambitions.
On July 11th, while insisting there’s absolutely no rivalry with Bezos, Branson hopes to be the first non-crew passenger aboard his Virgin Galactic rocket plane. Bezos will fly his Blue Origin a few days later on July 20th.
Branson said there is no rivalry with Bezos: “I know nobody will believe me when I say it but honestly there’s isn’t [a competition]”, he said. His investment in Virgin Galactic has been almost 20 years in development and has suffered more than a few set-backs, and the death of a test pilot.
Accompanying Branson will be three Virgin Galactic mission specialists: Chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, lead operations engineer Colin Bennett, and government affairs VP Sirisha Bandla. Virgin Galactic pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci will be at the controls of the company’s VSS Unity spacecraft which is the project’s mothership.
The Federal Aviation Administration has approved both the Branson and Bezos systems. Virgin Galactic says they have some 700 would-be near-astronauts in the queue to fly, including the likes of Hollywood actor Tom Hanks, and pop stars Justin Beiber and Lady Gaga. Commercial flights with paying passengers will start next year.
The Bezos project is, however, of another magnitude. It is all based on his Blue Origin rocket system and in particular the New Shepherd version which is designed to carry six passengers. The rocket will lift off from its West Texas base and during an overall 11 minute flight will see the passenger capsule detach from its booster rocket (which will return to Earth) with the capsule coming back from near-space by parachute.
Inside will be Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, 82-year-old aviator Wally Funk and an as-yet-unnamed auction winner who paid $28 million for the privilege. Funk will become the oldest person ever to fly to space.
Despite the 19-day gap between the two non-rivals, the July month could see the space tourism industry start with immense benefits for the successful players.