Two ships, two companies, but only one objective for billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson: to cross the space frontier themselves, finally. After having each founded their own space company in the early 2000s, the two men are now about to take off, just a few days apart.
Both a stunning coincidence in the development schedule, and an emblematic reflection of the fierce competition between them, these two flights also mark a turning point for the nascent space tourism industry.
If the two patrons are among the first passengers of Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, their goal is to allow hundreds of (rich) travellers to admire the curvature of the Earth with their own eyes, for a few minutes.
They will not be the first billionaires to go into space: Hungarian-born American Charles Simonyi and Canadian founder of Cirque du Soleil Guy Laliberté spent several days aboard the International Space Station in 2007 and 2009, but made the trip on a Russian Soyuz rocket.
Bezos and Branson will be the first to fly in spacecraft developed by companies they created.
“It’s just an incredible and wonderful coincidence that we’re going in the same month,” the Briton told the Washington Post, assuring that the last-minute announcement of his flight date, July 11, was “really not” timed to beat the Amazon founder, who is scheduled to board on the 20th.
“Become an astronaut”
The first flight will therefore be Virgin Galactic’s, on Sunday from New Mexico. The scheduled time of takeoff has not yet been communicated, but the company said that a live video broadcast would take place from 07:00 local time.
A carrier aircraft will take off from a conventional runway, then drop the spacecraft below it at altitude. The model is called SpaceShipTwo, and the particular one used on Sunday is called VSS Unity.
The two pilots aboard the vessel will then ignite its engine for a supersonic ascent, until exceeding the 80 km of altitude — the height fixed in the United States for the border of the space. The passengers, Richard Branson and three other Virgin Galactic employees, will then detach and float in zero gravity for a few minutes.
The ship will then glide back down to earth.
The role of the founder of the Virgin group? To test and evaluate the experience of future customers, a priori from 2022. About 600 people have already paid for their tickets — between $200,000 and $250,000.
“When I return, I will announce something very exciting to allow more people to become astronauts,” he promised.
Not without minimum training and conditioning
The second space trip will be made by Blue Origin on July 20, the anniversary of the first steps on the moon.
The rocket, named New Shepard after the first American to reach space, Alan Shepard, will blast off vertically from West Texas. The capsule will separate at about 75 km altitude, continuing its trajectory until it exceeds 100 km in altitude — the Karman Line, which marks the beginning of space according to international convention.
By comparison, airliners generally fly at about 10 km high.
After a few minutes, the capsule will begin a free fall back to Earth, braked by three large parachutes and then retrorockets.
On board, Jeff Bezos will be accompanied by his brother, Mark, an 82-year-old former pilot, Wally Funk, and the mysterious winner of an auction, whose name has not yet been revealed but who paid $28 million to participate.
This will be the first manned flight of this rocket (while VSS Unity has already embarked pilots, and even a passenger).
Unlike a major rival, SpaceX, which plans much more ambitious multi-day trips for its own space tourists, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin’s so-called suborbital flights require minimal training.
But after being heralded as imminent for years, the advent of space tourism remains on hold until these tests are fully successful.
In 2014, an accident with a Virgin Galactic ship resulted in the death of a pilot, significantly delaying the program. And another such dramatic event is not allowed.