Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson could fly to space just a bit earlier than Blue Origin and SpaceX’s founders. DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
Move over, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk — Richard Branson may be the first of the space firm founders to actually make it to space himself.
Blue Origin announced Monday that Bezos, its founder, would fly on the firm’s first crewed mission scheduled for July 20. But later that day, Parabolic Arc reported that Virgin Galactic is planning to send Branson on a suborbital flight over the July 4 holiday weekend.
The news marks a unique twist in the emergent new space race: getting the companies’ founders into space on their firm’s own creations. Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX have all worked to expand spaceflight to civilians — meaning a flight for the founders is perhaps the next logical step.
Branson congratulated Bezos in a Twitter post, and teased his own flight, saying:
Many congratulations to @JeffBezos & his brother Mark on announcing spaceflight plans. Jeff started building @blueorigin in 2000, we started building @virgingalactic in 2004 & now both are opening up access to Space – how extraordinary! Watch this space…
The report from Parabolic Arc claims that Virgin Galactic needs to obtain clearance from the Federal Aviation Authority to fly Branson, as the firm is currently only allowed to fly employees for tests rather than for commercial purposes.
It also reports that Virgin Galactic started planning the flight in response to Blue Origin’s initial announcement of the first crewed flight.
What is Virgin Galactic’s flight plan? — Details are hazy and nothing has been confirmed yet, but Branson is expected to fly on the SpaceShipTwo rocket dubbed VSS Unity.
The rocket flew as recently as May 22. The VMS Eve aircraft took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico carrying VSS Unity. Around one hour after liftoff, the aircraft released the rocket. The rocket fired its engines and reached an altitude of around 55.45 miles.
The VSS Unity rocket is designed to carry six people over the course of a two-hour suborbital flight. They will experience weightlessness for several minutes before returning to Earth.
What is Blue Origin’s flight plan? — Bezo’s maiden flight, announced on May 5, will send six civilians past the Kármán line for around 10 minutes. The line, located around 62 miles above the Earth, is normally considered the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. The New Shepard rocket will launch from the firm’s West Texas site.
Blue Origin is inviting people to bid for one of the seats in an online auction. As of Monday, the bidding had reached $2.8 million, with 6,000 participants from 143 countries.
Bezos’ brother Mark will take the third seat alongside Bezos and the mystery winner. The final three passengers have yet to be announced.
Will Branson actually go to space? — Many organizations consider the 62-mile-high Kármán line as the boundary of space. This includes the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale aeronautics body.
But not everyone agrees. The United States Air Force and NASA, for example, place the line 50 miles above the Earth’s surface. The FAI has also expressed interest in recognizing this definition instead, but for the time being, uses the higher boundary.
In short, the question of whether Branson will beat Bezos to space depends in part on which definition of “space” you follow.
When will Elon Musk go to space? — Even though SpaceX started crewed flights in May 2020, Musk has yet to fly on a SpaceX mission.
In 2018, he expressed interest in joining Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa on his trip around the moon in 2023. He’s also suggested that he would like to die on Mars, where he plans to build a city as early as 2050 — “just not on impact,” he said in December 2020.