Richard Branson is set to become the latest billionaire to enter the space tourism race, trailing behind Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.
Branson’s Virgin Galactic is gearing up to send four people who paid $200,000 each at least 250,000 feet above Earth’s surface Thursday, marking the company’s maiden commercial flight.
However, Musk and Bezos have launched paying customers to the final frontier over the past two years.
The ‘space barons,’ with a combined net worth of $379.3 billion, are vying for galactic supremacy – and only time will tell who will take the crown.
Richard Branson has been to space but is set to launch Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flight Thursday
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson
Virgin Galactic takes a different approach to conquer space with a plane that attaches to a larger carrier craft and releases at a certain altitude.
Branson’s most high-profile and catastrophic space launch failure occurred in 2014, when Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed in California’s Mojave Desert, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injuring pilot Peter Siebold.
The craft was flying a manned test when it split into pieces.
Investigators later concluded that the crash was caused by structural failure after Alsbury unlocked a braking system early.
At the time, Branson said he was ‘shocked and saddened’ by the ‘tragic loss.’
Two minor hiccups in 2016 involved attempts to carry out the first glide flight for the company’s VSS Unity space plane.
Branson became the first billionaire in space when he took the maiden voyage of the VSS Unity on July 11, 2021.
The Virgin Galactic founder was one of six Virgin Galactic employees aboard VSS Unity.
However, the spaceplane was grounded shortly after the flight due to an investigation when it veered off course during its descent back to the runway in the New Mexico desert.
The British billionaire became Virgin Galactic Astronaut 001 when he made it to space on a suborbital flight nine days before Bezos – on July 11 in a test flight
The Virgin Galactic founder was one of six Virgin Galactic employees aboard VSS Unity for the voyage to 280,000 feet
The crew launching Thursday includes Col. Walter Villadei, Pantaleone Carlucci, Lt. Col. Angelo Landolfi and Colin Bennett, plus two Virgin Galactic staff who also be on the spaceplane
In September 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it was investigating a deviation in the descent of the flight.
The FAA, which oversees commercial air and spaceflight in the US, found the spaceplane ‘deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance’ and did so for about a minute and 41 seconds.
Branson and his team have since worked out the issue and recently sent a test crew of four employees 54.2 miles above Earth’s surface in May, paving the way for Virgin Galactic’s first commercial mission, ‘Galactic 01,’ on Thursday.
The crew includes Col. Walter Villadei, Pantaleone Carlucci, Lt. Col. Angelo Landolfi and Colin Bennett, plus two Virgin Galactic staff who also be on the spaceplane.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk
Elon Musk is the only one of the three that has not been to space, but he has sent paying customers to Earth’s orbit and the International Space Station
SpaceX was founded in 2002, launching the Falcon 1 in 2006 and the first Falcon 9 in 2010, which was designed much less than competing rockets. Pictured is a Falcon 9 launch in June
Musk recently shared that his childhood love for science fiction inspired him to look beyond our planet, along with Sergey Korolev – an engineer who helped the Soviet Union beat the U.S. in the race to space during the Cold War.
SpaceX was founded in 2002, launching the Falcon 1 in 2006 and the first Falcon 9 in 2010, which was designed much less than competing rockets.
Musk’s reusable rockets were then used to ferry the Dragon capsule to the International Space Station (ISS) to deliver cargo in 2012.
And it was not until 2020 did SpaceX take its first humans aboard a Falcon 9 rocket.
On May 30, NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley took off from Cape Canaveral for the ISS – the first time in nearly a decade that an American crew had launched from US soil to space.
The feat pushed Musk into the private space exploration sector, allowing SpaceX to send Inspiration4 – a team of four civilians – into Earth’s orbit for three days in September 2021.
And SpaceX has six civilian astronauts with Aximos to the ISS.
SpaceX was awarded a $1.4 billion NASA contract in 2022 for five more astronaut launches to the ISS, a previous one in 2021 for $178 million to ‘launch services’ for the Europa Clipper mission heading to Jupiter.
And Musk’s company is also working on its Starship human landing system for the Artemis moon mission.
SpaceX has also been sending batches of 60 satellites into space to help form its Starlink network, which has grown to more than 3,900 satellites that 1.5 million subscribers access.
Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos
Bezos, his brother Mark, Dutch teenager Oliver Daemen – the youngest person in space – and former NASA trainee Wally Funk, 82, 66 miles above Earth’s surface on July 20, 2021
Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000 to chase down a childhood dream of spaceflight and building a society of millions living and working in space.
In a 1982 Miami Herald interview after being named valedictorian of his high school, the then 18-year-old said he wanted ‘to build space hotels, amusement parks and colonies for two or three million people who would be in orbit.’
The company’s New Shepard rocket is named in honor of Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American to go to space
‘The whole idea is to preserve the earth,’ he told the newspaper … The goal was to be able to evacuate humans. The planet would become a park.’
The idea of Blue Origin came about in 1999 after Bezos watched the film October Sky, a movie about a school kid who wanted to build rockets, and the aerospace company was born just one year later.
The company’s New Shepard rocket is named in honor of Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American to go to space.
It took 15 years before Bezos’ company made its first successful launch and landing of New Shepard – it had taken off and returned 21 times during that period.
On July 20, 2021, the billionaire, his brother Mark, Dutch teenager Oliver Daemen – the youngest person in space – and former NASA trainee Wally Funk, 82, 66 miles above Earth’s surface.
Blue Origin has since launched 27 people to the edge of space, including famed Star Trek celebrity William Shatner.
And Bezos’ company was aware of a $3.4 billion contract with NASA in May that put him one small step closer to putting a man on the moon.
Blue Origin has been vague regarding its moon lander proposal, aside from namechecking its corporate partners: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, the spacecraft software firm Draper, and robotics firm Astrobotic.