Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson denied on NBC’s “Today Show” that he is in a space race with fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin and Amazon — despite a recent announcement that may put Branson in space first by just nine days.
Branson is slated to go into space as soon as July 11 aboard Virgin Galactic’s space plane VSS Unity for the company’s next suborbital flight, the most high-profile launch since its founding in 2004.
That launch date gives plenty of time to squeak ahead of Blue Origin’s first crewed launch of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle, carrying Bezos — who recently resigned as Amazon’s CEO to focus on Blue Origin, the space venture he founded in 2000.
The situation sounds like a spaceborne version of the fictional CEO conflict that dominated the first season of the hit HBO television show “Silicon Valley,” but Branson denied as such in the interview.
“I know nobody will believe me when I say it, but honestly, there isn’t [competition],” Branson said on the Today Show episode, which aired Tuesday (July 6). The 70-year-old admitted he couldn’t wait for the opportunity, given he had dreamed of spaceflight since the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. (Blue Origin’s flight with Bezos is scheduled to launch on the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.)
Branson said there is plenty of room for multiple space companies to fly tourists into space. That said, seat prices remain sky-high for participation and it remains largely open to the super-rich. The forthcoming Inspiration4 flight aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon sought other types of passengers for its mission led by billionaire Jared Isaacman, including two contest winners and the first astronaut set to fly with a prosthetic device, but it remains an exception in the history of space tourism.
An estimated 750 people have signed on for Virgin Galactic flights, some paying $250,000 apiece for the opportunity. Blue Origin has not released normal seat prices for its flight, but the high bid for a lucky contestant to gain a seat with Bezos ended up running at $28 million.
The Bezos and Branson flights will each have other crew members aboard. Branson’s fellow passengers will include Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor, Colin Bennett, Virgin Galactic lead operations engineer and Sirisha Bandla, the vice president of government affairs and research operations at the company. VSS Unity will be piloted by Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, with C.J. Sturckow and Kelly Latimer piloting the carrier aircraft VMS Eve.
Bezos invited 82-year-old female aviator Wally Funk, one of the “Mercury 13” who unsuccessfully sought female astronaut qualification with NASA in the 1960s, on the first crewed launch — which she gleefully accepted on camera. Should Funk succeed, she’ll be the oldest person ever to reach space, after John Glenn did so at age 77. The other passengers will be Bezos’ brother Mark, and the as-yet-unnamed auction winner.
Regardless of who goes first, Bezos is slated to fly higher than Branson. Historically, Virgin Galactic spacecraft tend to fall a few miles short of the height many people use to demarcate space, at 62 miles (100 kilometers). Meanwhile, a definition from the Federal Aviation Administration says anything above 50 miles (80 km) is space, and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is slated to go at least that high with Branson on board.
While Bezos has remained silent so far about Branson’s attempt to go to space first, years ago Bezos touted New Shepard as better than Virgin Galactic due to his company’s ability to go over the 62-mile mark, also known as the Kármán Line.
“We’ve always had as our mission that we wanted to fly above the Kármán Line, because we didn’t want there to be any asterisks next to your name about whether you’re an astronaut or not,” Bezos said in 2019. “That’s something they’re going to have to address, in my opinion.”
Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.