Virgin Galactic downplays talk about Branson vs. Bezos space race

How serious could the suborbital space race between Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos get? (GeekWire photos)

Would Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson try to steal a march from Blue Origin (and Amazon) founder Jeff Bezos when it comes to which billionaire will fly his own suborbital spaceship first?

There was some excitement over the question following this week’s announcement that Bezos will travel to the edge of space aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Branson quickly tweeted his congratulations when Bezos’ plans came to light, but also urged followers to “watch this room.”

And today, Parabolic Arc’s Doug Messier – who has long talked about the ups and downs of Virgin Galactic from its home base in Mojave, Calif. – quoted an unnamed source as saying the company was working on a plan to have Branson aboard its VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket to bring aircraft for a journey over 80 miles altitude beyond the July 4th vacation weekend.

Messier quoted his source as saying that the July 4th plan was subject to approval of the license by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said Branson will be on one of the upcoming SpaceShipTwo flights this summer. However, the plan provides that VSS Unity first conducts a test flight with a subordinate crew of “mission specialists” and then flies the boss on the journey.

The Virgin Galactic test pilots last flew VSS Unity above the 50-mile mark on May 22nd. The company considers 80 miles to be the limit of space, in accordance with the FAA’s definition of commercial astronaut wing awards. In contrast, Blue Origin focuses on the 100 kilometer high mark, the internationally recognized space boundary known as the Karman Line.

In an email statement, Virgin Galactic said it was “still in the process of analyzing data from our successful May 22nd flight”.

“As previously announced, we expect to complete the final test flights this summer by early fall,” said the company. “At this point we have not yet set the date of our next flight.”

The statement did not specifically reject the idea that mission planners could consider options to enable Branson to undertake early space travel.

However, a source familiar with the situation surrounding the flight test plan said claims to send Branson into space on the weekend of July 4th would be false information based on existing guidelines for analyzing test data and assessing flight safety . The source spoke on condition of anonymity as it was not authorized to publicly discuss the situation.

Meanwhile, the online auction for a vacant seat on the first New Shepard passenger flight continues, with the highest bid reaching $ 3.8 million today. The auction will culminate on Saturday with a live bidding session broadcast on Blue Origin’s website starting at 9:45 a.m. PT. Bids are registered confidentially and Blue Origin says that the identity of the winner will be disclosed “in the weeks after the auction closes”.

The proceeds from the auction will be donated to Club for the Future, Blue Origin’s nonprofit educational foundation. The winner would take a seat alongside Jeff Bezos and his brother Mark Bezos, as well as up to three other space fliers who would likely be Blue Origin employees or VIPs.

It would be nice if Branson – or, for that matter, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk – got the high bid. Would it be too much to imagine the billionaire space rivals collapsing like the stars of a sci-fi buddy movie?

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