The billionaire space race reaches new heights this weekend, as Virgin Galactic
CEO Richard Branson blasts off aboard his VSS Unity rocket-powered spaceplane to reach suborbital space — just nine days before Jeff Bezos, who recently stepped down as Amazon’s
CEO, is scheduled to do something similar with Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket and space capsule.
Both flights are poised to boldly go where no manned commercial spacecraft have gone before — approximately 55 to 66 miles above sea level, where the passengers will spend a few minutes experiencing weightlessness and enjoying an out-of-this-world view of the curvature of the Earth.
And the launches have a lot in common, which makes comparing them inevitable: both feature world-famous billionaires taking their pet space projects on test drives to the edge of outer space without reaching orbit, paving the way for space tourism’s future. (In fact, more than 700 people, including Tom Hanks, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, have already signed up for seats on future Virgin Galactic flights.)
But there are also a couple of key differences — such as which CEO is actually reaching space first.
Branson, 70, is lifting off from New Mexico this Sunday aboard a spacecraft that is attached to Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo airplane. The plane — named VMS Eve after Branson’s mother — will carry the VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo vehicle up to 45,000 feet before releasing it. Then a pilot will fire the VSS Unity’s rockets and fly the ship into suborbital space, reaching a peak altitude of 55 miles above sea level.
But that might not meet the definition of space for some, since international aeronautic and astronautical organizations in Europe consider the Kármán Line the official boundary of space — and that is actually 62 miles above the Earth. Yet NASA, the U.S. Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration all say that going above 50 miles counts as kissing outer space. So, by their definition, Branson is indeed earning his astronaut wings.
When Bezos, 57, takes off on the New Shepard from West Texas on July 20, however, the fully automated rocket will fly briefly above that Kármán Line. So Bezos is flying higher — but Branson’s trip will be longer, as Virgin Galactic’s flights are expected to last around 14 to 17 minutes from the time the space plane is released from the mother ship and fires its rocket motor, and the total mission clocks in at around 90 minutes. Meanwhile, the Blue Origin’s entire trip, from launch to landing, is expected to last around 11 minutes.
Plus, Branson is going first — although he played down any talk of interplanetary competition in recent interviews. “I know nobody will believe me when I say it, but honestly, there isn’t” a competition, he told NBC earlier this week.
Bezos hasn’t commented publicly, but Blue Origin’s chief executive Bob Smith told the New York Times that, “We wish [Branson] a great and safe flight, but they’re not flying above the Kármán line and it’s a very different experience.”
Branson’s VSS Unity spacecraft has more windows for gawking at Earth from on high — each passenger has two windows to look through, and two cameras recording their flight experience — but Bezos’s New Shepard capsule boasts bigger windows that make up one-third of the capsule.
The VSS Unity has also reached suborbital space — with pilots — three times already, while the July 20 trip will be the first time that the New Shepard capsule will fly with people onboard — although the New Shepard has already counted 15 successful unmanned trips to the edge of space. This weekend’s Virgin Galactic flight will be the first time the VSS Unity will be carrying a full crew, however, with the six passengers including two pilots, Branson, and a couple of Virgin Galactic employees. Blue Origin will also carry six people, including: Bezos and his brother; the winner of a $28 million charity auction; and 82-year-old women’s aviation pioneer Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk, who is poised to break John Glenn’s record as the oldest person to go to space. But there will be no pilots on the New Shepard, which is fully automated.
Virgin Galactic is already booking future trips, with reservations initially starting at $250,000, although that price is expected to soar higher when the company opens reservations again. Blue Origin is expected to announce its prices and open ticket sales after Bezos blasts off later this month.
Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc.
stock is up more than 122% so far this year, and shares rocketed to almost $60 when the FAA cleared the company for passenger flights into space last month. Blue Origin is not a publicly traded company, and Bezos sells around $1 billion in Amazon stock each year to fund the space venture.
Catch the live broadcast of Branson’s flight on Sunday at 9 a.m. EDT on Virgin Galactic’s page, or follow the company’s Twitter account for more details.