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Branson aiming to beat Bezos in billionaires’ race to space

Unity 22 Crew
Virgin Galactic

In a brazen display of one-upmanship, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson is aiming to beat Amazon founder and Blue Origin owner Jeff Bezos to space.

Each company has spent recent years developing its own space tourism service for suborbital rides to the Kármán line, an area 62 miles above Earth that’s widely regarded as the edge of space.

Last month Bezos announced he’ll be riding aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket on July 20 in what will be the company’s first-ever crewed mission following 15 test flights of its suborbital space vehicle.

But in a surprise move that may leave Bezos bristling, Branson announced on Thursday, July 1 that he’ll be riding aboard Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered VSS Unity for a similar ride to space, with the mission window opening on July 11.

It’s one thing to have a dream of making space more accessible to all; it’s another for an incredible team to collectively turn that dream into reality #Unity22 @virgingalactic

— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) July 2, 2021

Virgin Galactic’s approaching Unity 22 mission will be the 22nd test flight for Unity and the company’s fourth crewed spaceflight. But the upcoming trip will be the first to transport a full crew of two pilots and four mission specialists — one of whom will be Branson — who will test out the proposed space tourism experience.

Virgin Galactic says it plans to livestream the entire event, with the broadcast kicking off on its website at 9 a.m. ET on the day of the flight.

Commenting on the planned flight, 70-year-old Branson said: “After more than 16 years of research, engineering, and testing, Virgin Galactic stands at the vanguard of a new commercial space industry, which is set to open space to humankind and change the world for good.”

Marketing move

Although Virgin Galactic says the purpose of the mission is to fully test the customer experience, the sudden announcement of a flight schedule that aims to put Branson in space days before fellow billionaire Bezos will look to many like a blatant publicity grab as the race to launch a commercial space tourism service heats up.

Virgin Galactic’s announcement comes a day after Bezos unveiled Wally Funk as the third crew member to join him and his brother on their July 20 flight. The American aviator and Goodwill Ambassador will, at 82, become the oldest person to go to space when she takes the ride later this month.

The experience

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin will offer slightly different space tourism experiences. Although both the Unity space plane and Blue Origin’s capsule can transport up to six passengers, their flight systems are very different.

Virgin Galactic uses a jet-powered aircraft to carry Unity to as high as 50,000 feet before releasing the space plane for its rocket-powered trip to space, while Blue Origin’s system uses a rocket launch with passengers traveling inside a capsule.

At the end of the experience, Unity glides back for a runway landing while New Shepard’s capsule deploys parachutes for a soft landing in the desert.

Both companies promise their trips will offer stunning views of Earth and several minutes of weightlessness where passengers will be able to float around the cabin.

Virgin Galactic has already been selling seats for $250,000 for its space tourism service. Blue Origin is yet to say how much it will charge for its seats, though the fee is expected to be similar to Virgin Galactic’s.

The official commercial launch of these space tourism services is yet to be announced.

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Trevor Mogg
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