Richard Branson Becomes First Billionaire In Space, Beats Jeff Bezos By Days
On Sunday afternoon, Richard Branson won the billionaire space race as Virgin Galactic’s latest test flight carried him 50 miles above sea level.
Virgin Galactic live-streamed the entire event, which ended up at a little over two hours, from the spacecraft’s mid-flight detachment to the commercial astronaut’s post-landing speech. For the live stream, Branson personally recruited talk show host Stephen Colbert, whose narration brought a mix of realist humor and dreamy optimism to the occasion.
The businessman’s trip above 50 miles marks the first commercial space flight to carry its CEO to the edge of the stratosphere, ahead of Jeff Bezo‘s New Shepard. Unlike Bezos, who announced that he was flying on a Blue Origin test ride in early June, Branson kept quiet about his trip until the beginning of July. In an apparent snub to his competitor, the English CEO flew just nine days before Blue Origin launched New Shepard with Bezos on board.
Both magnates said that the space trips would fulfill their childhood dreams. Last week, Branson referenced the Apollo 11 mission in an interview with NPR, saying, “I was a kid once, standing with my dad and my sister, looking up at the moon, being told that Buzz and Neil were standing on it. And I just thought I’ve got to go to space one day.
Bezos chose the July 20 liftoff date for its significance as the 52nd anniversary of the first moonwalk.
It seems, however, that Branson achieved his childhood goal as he experienced weightlessness for the first time, his face filled with giddy excitement. Virgin Galactic tweeted a clip from the live stream where the billionaire offered words of advice and encouragement to “all the kids down there” while his fellow astronauts floated around the capsule, their hair drifting in all directions.
— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) July 11, 2021
Still, some debate whether or not Unity22, and all its passengers, passed through the atmosphere’s veil and into space. Due to its design, Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft reach a top altitude of just over 50 miles. The Kármán line, the internationally recognized “boundary” of space, is situated around 62 miles above sea level.
The definition of space’s “boundary,” and if scientists can even clearly define it, is under review. Blue Origin, whose flights will briefly rise above the barrier, was quick to capitalize on the scientific dispute. The company’s Twitter posted a thread called, “Compare the New Shepard Experience,” where they quipped, “From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name.”
Branson’s mission has more than kickstarted the intense competition between his and Bezos’ company. The Virgin Galactic founder has previously bragged about needing to stop reservations due to high demands. He’s hoping today’s flight will increase interest in his space tourism business to an entirely new level. As of yesterday, over 700 people had signed up for trips that will cost between $200,000 and $250,000. Blue Origin is feeling the pressure. The company attempted to sway consumers with their comparative fact sheet on Twitter, posted in preparation for Branson’s historic flight.
Even so, both businessmen understood that they needed to test their own products in order to gain future customers’ trust, especially after a fatal test flight on Virgin Galactic’s side. The men have gained the respect of NASA’s last shuttle commander, Chris Ferguson, who told the Associated Press, “That’s one surefire way to show confidence in your product is to get on it. I’m sure that this was not a decision made lightly. I wish them both well. I think it’s great.”