Space flight of Branson or Bezos this month will last a scant handful of minutes, but suborbital space may usher in a new era of spaceflight and space flyers alike.
For perhaps the first time, the humans inside a spacecraft will — in a strict financial sense — be worth more than the vehicle itself, as billionaires take to the skies this month in a pair of historic suborbital spaceflights that mark a dramatic change in what it takes to become an astronaut.
On July 11, British business magnate Richard Branson will strap himself into the cabin of the spaceplane VSS Unity, along with three employees of his space tourism company Virgin Galactic. Just over a week later, on July 20, in a move timed to coincide with the 52nd anniversary of Americans first landing on the moon, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos will climb into a New Shepard capsule as a passenger on the first crewed flight conducted by his company, Blue Origin.
Neither flight will last long — each billionaire will slip out of gravity’s clutches for a scant handful of minutes. But taken together, the two jaunts into suborbital space may usher in a new era of spaceflight and space flyers alike.
“I think the definition of ‘astronaut’ is up for grabs again right now,” Jordan Bimm, a space historian at the University of Chicago and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, told Space.com. “What isn’t changing is that space remains an incredibly elite space. It’s just a different pathway there.”
For both billionaires, the path to space began more than a decade ago, when each already-established entrepreneur founded a company aimed at spaceflight.
Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, and the company has always focused on suborbital passenger flights of a piloted space plane launched from a larger carrier plane. The first commercial flight was originally targeted to occur as early as 2008, but the company faced a host of delays, including a fatal accident in 2014.
Virgin Galactic only flew its first passenger, the company’s chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, in 2019. Since then, the company’s plans for launching a full cabin of passengers have again faced delays. But Branson has made no bones about planning to be on Virgin Galactic’s first operational trip, saying as early as 2013 that he intended to be on the flight.
Bezos kept his flight intentions quieter, although he’s long spoken publicly about watching the Apollo moon landing in 1969 and wanting to visit space himself. He founded Blue Origin in 2000, and the company’s vision began with vertical launches on a reusable rocket to suborbital space. (The company has since announced a planned orbital system as well.)
Blue Origin had dreams of launching commercial suborbital flights perhaps as early as 2010, but has so far stuck to 15 uncrewed launches, including one during which company employees rehearsed entering and exiting the capsule but were not on board during the flight.
Although Branson and Bezos will be the first to have funded the vehicle they will fly on, they won’t be the first to buy their way into space. Seven passengers hitched rides to the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz capsules in the 2000s on flights booked through Space Adventures, a Virginia-based space tourism company. The trips, which cost tens of millions of dollars, included a weeklong stay on the orbiting laboratory and meant facing the indignities of trying to sleep and use the toilet without the help of gravity.
Flight to be the first
Amazon chief Jeff Bezos was eager to steal a win from his rivals. He announced his coming mission, on July 20th, coinciding with the anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. By putting himself into space, Bezos wanted to achieve something that neither Richard Branson nor Elon Musk had yet done. He is not going alone: he plans to take his brother, Mark, the as yet unidentified winner of an auction who paid twenty-eight million dollars for a seat; and an eighty-two-year-old female pilot named Wally Funk.
But Branson, a showman as much as a businessman, is not one to cede the stage. Only hours after Bezos posted the video of Funk’s joy, Branson broke some news of his own: he would be on the next Virgin Galactic flight—nine days before Bezos. (The flight scheduled for July 10; Stephen Colbert hosting the live cast, and Khalid performing a new song for the occasion.) “The billionaire space race is heating up,” the Washington Post said. Branson has subsequently tried to downplay the rivalry, asserting that what appears to be a ploy to leapfrog Bezos is just “an incredible, wonderful coincidence,” adding, in a separate interview, “I’ve never seen this as a race.”