Richard Branson aims to beat Jeff Bezos into space by nine days

Richard Branson plans to travel to space as early as 11 July on board a Virgin Galactic spacecraft. Photograph: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

By Mark Sweney and agencies,
Published by the Guardian, 2 July 2021

Virgin Galactic founder has announced he will take off on board the next test flight on 11 July

Richard Branson is aiming to beat fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos into space by nine days.

Branson’s Virgin Galactic company announced on Thursday that its next test flight would take place on 11 July and that its founder would be among the six people on board. All other passengers will be company employees. It will be only the fourth trip to space for Virgin Galactic.

The winged rocket ship – the first carrying a full crew – will launch from New Mexico after the US Federal Aviation Administration in late June gave Virgin Galactic permission to take paying customers into space after a successful test flight in May.

The news came just hours after Bezos’s Blue Origin said the Amazon founder would be accompanied into space on 20 July by Wally Funk, a female aerospace pioneer. The 82-year-old, who was denied the chance to be an astronaut in the 1960s due to her gender, will be the oldest person ever to travel to space.

Bezos, who is stepping down as chief executive of Amazon on 5 July, is to blast off from west Texas on the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Amazon has not commented on speculation that its 57-year-old founder may have been asked to step back from his chief executive role to become executive chairman of the company, which has a market value of $1.7tn, before heading to space. He is being replaced by Andy Jassy, the head of its successful cloud computing division, Amazon Web Services, who formally takes over as CEO on Monday.

Bezos will be on the debut flight of a Blue Origin rocket with his brother, Funk and a yet-to-be-named passenger who paid for a seat on the flight at a $28m charity auction last month.

Branson said he was honoured to be able to help “ensure his business delivers a unique customer experience”.

“I truly believe that space belongs to all of us,” he said. “I’ve always been a dreamer. My mum taught me to never give up and to reach for the stars. On July 11, it’s time to turn that dream into a reality aboard the next @VirginGalactic,” he said via Twitter.

On Wednesday, Branson had declined to say when he would travel because of restrictions placed on him by his publicly traded company. But he stressed he was healthy and fit to fly as soon as his engineers give him the go ahead. He will turn 71 a week after the scheduled launch.

Branson, Bezos, the world’s richest man, and Elon Musk, the maverick chief executive of the electric car maker Tesla and founder of the aerospace company SpaceX, are vying for control of the burgeoning public-private space industry.

In a recent Instagram video Bezos, who acquired the Washington Post in 2013 for $250m, said he had dreamed of space travel since he was five.

“If you see Earth from space, it changes you,” he said. “It changes your relationship with this planet, with humanity. It’s one Earth. It’s an adventure.”

The three competitors have developed quite different technologies. Virgin Galactic launches its rocket ship from an aircraft, reaching an altitude of roughly 55 miles (88km). Blue Origin launches its New Shepard rocket from the ground, with its capsule soaring to about 66 miles. Both those altitudes are considered the edge of space. By comparison, SpaceX launches its capsules – crew and cargo – into Earth orbit.

The main objectives of the next Virgin Galactic test flight will be “evaluating … seat comfort, the weightless experience and the views of Earth” in the space cabin, Virgin Galactic said.

The company said it also wanted to demonstrate the conditions for conducting human-tended research experiments and confirm the training programme at Spaceport America supported the spaceflight experience.

Michael Colglazier, the chief executive officer of Virgin Galactic, said: “Our next flight – the 22nd flight test for VSS Unity and our first fully crewed flight test – is a testament to the dedication and technical brilliance of our entire team, and I’d like to extend a special thank you to our pilots and mission specialists, each of whom will be performing important work.”

In April, Nasa awarded Musk’s SpaceX the lucrative and highly sought after contract to build the lunar lander that will spearhead its ambitious Artemis programme, which aims to return humans to the moon for the first time since the final Apollo mission in 1972.

Associated Press and Press Association contributed to this report

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