How serious could the suborbital space race between Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos get? (GeekWire photos)
Jeff Bezos has a longstanding rivalry with SpaceX’s Elon Musk, but now his space company Blue Origin is stepping up the stakes with future space traveler Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic – and the Twitterverse isn’t amusing.
Today’s escalation from Blue Origin came in the form of a tweet distinguishing between a suborbital ride on its New Shepard spaceship and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne rocket plane.
The tweet’s infographic indicated that New Shepard would be flying above the 100 kilometers (62 miles) altitude, currently considered the international space boundary, while New Shepard’s target altitude is 80 miles, which is set by the Federal Aviation Administration as an astronaut is accepted territory. The other advantages of New Shepard – including the size of the windows – were also mentioned:
From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly over the Kármán Line, so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name. For 96% of the world’s population, space begins at an altitude of 100 km on the internationally recognized Kármán line. pic.twitter.com/QRoufBIrUJ
– Blue Origin (@blueorigin) July 9, 2021
The Twitter backlash was not long in coming.
“If you don’t want to lose a lot of space fans, I suggest you take this piece of junk with you NOW!” Wrote John Gardi, an engineer who speaks frequently about space companies. “You just lost my support! #BlueOriginSucks! ”
“Jeff is seriously pissed off,” tweeted Eric Berger of Ars Technica.
“Shots on space Twitter … again,” wrote Jared Isaacman, the billionaire CEO of Shift4 Payments, who is preparing to orbitalize a SpaceX Crew Dragon for launch in September.
This latest space dispute comes as Branson prepares to board Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity for a test flight on Sunday, accompanied by two pilots and three other mission specialists. Branson says he plans to test the customer experience before it is expected to go into commercial operation next month.
The UK-born billionaire was scheduled to fly later that summer, but the flight schedule was postponed after Bezos announced in June that he would be on New Shepard for his first crewed flight on July 20.
Branson’s move fueled talk of a suborbital space race: Although Seattle tech manager Charles Simonyi already holds the title of first billionaire in space (and in orbit) due to his trips to the International Space Station in 2007 and 2009, Branson is standing auf becomes the first tycoon to ride on the spaceship of his own company – and thus eclipses Bezos’ journey.
That title might not be worth a red letter in the record books, but the space race talk plays into the clash of billionaire egos. (Although Branson insists he isn’t in a race with Bezos, he couldn’t resist referring to “Jeff Who?” During a CNBC interview.) It also plays a role in the competition for suborbital space customers.
A recent report estimates the space tourism market will grow by $ 5.2 billion over the next four years, with Virgin Galactic as well as Blue Origin, SpaceX, and others vying for bigger slices of the pie.
There is actually little difference between the suborbital passenger experience at 50 miles and 62 miles. Both include several G acceleration, a few minutes of weightlessness and a view of the curved earth under the black sky of space. But seasoned entrepreneurs like Bezos and Branson know how valuable marketing can be – and how many operational differences, from safety records to window sizes, can contribute to consumer choice.
Branson is customary adding to the shine by hiring CBS talk show host Stephen Colbert to host Sunday’s SpaceShipTwo livestream and planning to premiere a new song by Khalid after the landing.
If a would-be spaceman has to spend tens of millions of dollars, an orbital trip in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule is probably more attractive. But for tourists and researchers who don’t dig deeper into their pockets, the suborbital trips planned for the next few weeks could mark the start of fierce competition for customers.
“I disagree with what Blue was talking about, but neither am I their market audience and I am not their market,” said Jared Zambrano-Stout, space policy analyst who served as chief of staff for the National Space Council during the Trump administration, said in a series of tweets.
“Just what people have been talking about for decades would be the Eden of Commercial Space,” wrote Zambrano-Stout. “Strong and fierce competition between competitors, pursuing every customer wherever possible, with the government being just one of many customers. … I wonder if people actually wanted capitalist competition or if they wanted something else. “
Virgin Galactic says it will begin streaming videos of Branson’s SpaceShipTwo mission on Sunday at 6 a.m. PT through its website and Facebook, Twitter and YouTube channels.