Virgin Australia co-founder Sir Richard Branson has hinted he’ll make an 11th-hour bid to beat fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos into space, days after his American rival announced his intentions to blast off in July.
Both Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Bezos’ Blue Origin ventures have been working hard to create a new trend of ‘space tourism’, in which their dedicated ‘spaceplanes’ perform brief jaunts into suborbital space, just above the Earth’s atmosphere, for minutes at a time.
On Monday, Bezos announced that he, along with his brother and the winner of an ongoing charity auction, will be three of the first six people to man Blue Origin’s first crewed flight aboard the New Shepard spacecraft to the Karman line, 100 kilometres above the Earth’s surface, on 20 July 2021.
Following 15 consecutive successful non-crewed test flights, the 20 July flight will mark the first test flight with people on board. The flight is said to take just seven minutes from beginning to end.
It would make Bezos the first of the three billionaire’s investing in space travel technologies, including Sir Richard and Elon Musk, to reach space via his own company’s rocket.
Shortly after Bezos’ announcement, Sir Richard took to Twitter to congratulate his rival for the achievement, made the notable comparison of both men (and their respective companies) investing in the concept of spaceflight, and ended his thought with the ominous words “watch this space…”.
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…
— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) June 7, 2021
Then, not more than a day after the announcement, rumours began to fly that Sir Richard was attempting to supersede Bezos in his momentous first trip into outer space.
California-based space reporter Doug Messier first reported that Virgin Galactic is working on a plan to send its billionaire founder on a suborbital flight aboard its VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo spaceplane on the 4 July long weekend.
The achievement would see Sir Richard touch the edge of space about two weeks ahead of Bezos.
An unnamed source close to the matter reportedly told Messier the plans would go ahead, assuming Virgin Galactic receives its commercial reusable operator’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration in time.
The operator’s license will allow the company to fly Sir Richard, as its current launch license only permits Virgin Galactic to fly on a non-commercial basis, essentially limiting its test-flight subjects to employees only.
While he is a founder and financier, Sir Richard is currently not considered an employee.
However, the source said Virgin Galactic has now submitted the final two verification reports required to obtain the necessary operator’s licence, based off the previous flight tests of VSS Unity.
The company is currently expecting the FAA will issue said licence prior to the 4 July D-Day for its Branson spaceflight, according to the source.
Sir Richard has long specified that he intends to fly aboard VSS Unity before the company launches public commercial spaceflights, slotted for before the end of this year.
When asked for comment, a Virgin Galactic spokesperson did not deny the report that Sir Richard is gearing up to beat Bezos to space.
Instead, the company reiterated that it is “in the process of analysing the data” from its most recent test flight.
“At this time, we have not determined the date of our next flight,” they added.
“An objective from the last flight was to collect data to be used for the final two verification reports that are required as part of the current FAA commercial reusable spacecraft operator’s licence.”
VSS Unity has now successfully reached suborbital space on three successful crewed space flights.
VSS Unity is Virgin Galactic’s latest SpaceShipTwo vehicle; a six-passenger, two-pilot craft that is designed to make brief jaunts to suborbital space. SpaceShipTwo takes off from a runway beneath the wing of a carrier plane called WhiteKnightTwo.
WhiteKnightTwo carries the spaceplane to an altitude of about 50,000 feet, where SpaceShipTwo drops free and makes its own way to suborbital space.
Currently, The Spaceship Company is building two more SpaceShipTwo vehicles, the first of which was expected to be rolled out of the California factory in early 2021.
According to Virgin Galactic, about 600 people have already bought their ticket to ride SpaceShipTwo when it is in full operation, each paying around $250,000 for the privilege.
Meanwhile, the bid for the final seat aboard Blue Origin’s first suborbital jaunt with passengers, and a seat beside the company’s billionaire founder Bezos no less, has now surpassed US$3.8 million.