The latest space race is a rocket-fuelled clash between two egos so enormous that, as the old saying goes, you can probably see them from the Moon.
Representing Great Britain, by way of the Caribbean tax haven where he officially resides, is bearded serial entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson. While flying the stars and stripes is Jeff Bezos, the tech tycoon who in 1994 started an online book retailer in his garage, decided to call it Amazon, and is now the wealthiest person in history.
The buccaneering duo are in the final stages of an irresistible space race. In the coming days, one of them hopes to become the first civilian to travel into the great beyond, using a homemade aircraft.
Back in May, Bezos unveiled grandiose plans to lift off aboard New Shepard, a phallic rocket built by his firm Blue Origin, on July 20: the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing.
‘To see Earth from space . . . changes your relationship with humanity,’ claims Bezos modestly.
Then Branson announced last week that he’s going to zip into a blue jumpsuit and clamber aboard Virgin Galactic ship VSS Unity in New Mexico tomorrow morning (at 2pm UK time), a full nine days before Bezos’s scheduled launch.
But he denies this is an attempt to upstage his much richer American rival. ‘It’s honestly not a race,’ Branson said earlier this week. ‘If it’s a race, it’s a race to produce wonderful spaceships that can make many more people be able to access space. And I think that’s both of our aims. I spoke to him two or three weeks ago, and we both wished each other well.’
So which billionaire rocket man will win this high-stakes duel? How will they do it? And what are the chances of it ending in disaster?
According to his Twitter handle, Branson would like to be known as a ‘tie-loathing adventurer, philanthropist and troublemaker who believes in turning ideas into reality’.
That’s one way of looking at it. Another is that he’s a man with a gift for self-promotion who owes a good chunk of his £3.5billion personal fortune to luck and clever tax lawyers.
Educated at Stowe, the 70-year-old father-of-two started off in record stores and labels in the 1970s, before branching into airlines, rail franchises, gyms, cruise liners, hotels and consumer brands.
Endlessly claiming the moral high ground, he managed to keep a straight face last year when requesting a Covid bailout for his kerosene-burning airline by arguing that ‘creating positive social and environmental impact has always been at the heart of this brand’.
On a similar note, he’s recently been telling interviewers that Virgin Galactic’s raison d’etre isn’t to make money, but to ‘be an inspiration to a whole generation of kids to do something incredible’.
Bezos, whose net worth is $210 billion (£152 billion), plays a similar tune, claiming that his company’s ultimate goal is to change humanity by supporting ‘millions of people… living and working in space’.
To a degree, the 57-year-old already has changed humanity via Amazon, founded with then-wife Mackenzie Scott, the mother of their four children. When they split in 2019, after U.S. tabloids learned he was conducting an affair with former TV anchor Lauren Sanchez, the divorce cost $38 billion.
Much like Branson — who was once prosecuted for tax evasion early in his career — Bezos is endlessly criticised for his firm’s tax affairs. He’s also gained notoriety for Amazon’s robust treatment of staff. One pundit recently observed that, since it’s impossible to take a ‘bathroom break’ during a rocket launch, the bombastic tycoon will soon get to experience what it’s like to work in one of his warehouses.
Back in May, Bezos unveiled grandiose plans to lift off aboard New Shepard, a phallic rocket built by his firm Blue Origin, on July 20: the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing
The difference between the two spaceships is best understood by likening one to a shuttle, while the other is an old-fashioned rocket.
Branson’s VSS Unity sits in the former category: it first gets carried to an altitude of 50,000ft aboard a mothership. Then it fires up its rocket engines, points vertically upwards, and accelerates to roughly 2,300 miles per hour.
At an altitude of 55 miles, the two pilots cut off the engines and allow it to drift. Up to six passengers will then feel weightless for four or five minutes, and be able to see the Earth curving below them through 17 porthole-style windows.
As gravity begins to pull VSS Unity back to terra firma, the pilots rotate its wings and tail fins upwards to slow its descent. By the time the vehicle has returned to 50,000ft, they will be back in their original position, allowing the pilots to land it on a runway. The trip will take around 90 minutes.
The Bezos spaceship, New Shepard, doesn’t need a pilot. It instead flies autonomously and consists of two conjoined parts: a rocket which powers everything, and a pressurised capsule containing up to six passengers.
After blasting around 66 miles vertically upwards, the engine cuts. The parts then separate and fall back to Earth.
The observation capsule has six windows and was named after Alan Shepard — the first American in space. Its passengers will at this point be able to unbuckle and float around the capsule weightlessly for roughly three minutes.
The pod will then fall, at rapidly increasing speeds, before passengers (hopefully!) feel a thump as three parachutes deploy. With any luck, it will then land in the Texas desert, where a recovery crew will be waiting. The whole thing will be over in just 11 minutes.
Then Branson announced last week that he’s going to zip into a blue jumpsuit and clamber aboard Virgin Galactic ship VSS Unity in New Mexico tomorrow morning, a full nine days before Bezos’s scheduled launch
If things had gone according to plan, Sir Richard would have been joined on Virgin Galactic’s maiden voyage by his sprightly mother Eve. That was what he promised back in 2006, when she was in her 80s and he claimed to be a mere year or two from achieving lift-off. Sadly, Branson’s couple of years turned into 15, and his mother passed away in January, at the age of 96. So she has given her name to VSS Unity’s mothership and he will instead by accompanied by three senior Virgin Galactic executives plus pilot Michael Masucci and his British co-pilot Dave Mackay, a former RAF airman.
The team was unveiled this week in a video that saw Branson stride to the camera and introduce himself as ‘Astronaut 001’ whose role on the ‘mission’ will be ‘evaluating customer space flight experience’.
Bezos, for his part, is to be joined by his brother Mark and a so-far-anonymous bidder who pledged to pay $28 million (£20.3million) in an online charity auction.
The final passenger will be Wally Funk, a former NASA employee and one of the so-called ‘Mercury 13’ group of women who completed astronaut training in the 1960s.
At 82, the plucky Mrs Funk will become the oldest person ever to fly into space. In an interview posted to Instagram by Bezos, she promised: ‘I’ll love every second of it. Woo-hoo! Ha-ha! I can hardly wait!’
But Sir Richard (right) denies this is an attempt to upstage his much richer American rival (left). ‘It’s honestly not a race,’ he said earlier this week
These aren’t just empty PR stunts. Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic were founded with the intention of creating a new leisure industry: space tourism. Should everything go according to plan, Branson says he’ll begin taking paying punters on flights ‘early next year’. He claims to have roughly 700 signed up.
Their ranks are said to include everyone from Hollywood stars Tom Hanks, Angelina Jolie, Lady Gaga and Ashton Kutcher to singer Justin Bieber, Dallas actress Victoria Principal and the British advertising tycoon Trevor Beattie.
Each will pay $250,000 (£181,000) for the pleasure.
In time, Virgin Galactic hopes to raise prices, with Branson telling a recent interviewer: ‘I think we’re going to be deluged with people wanting to go to space.’
Whether the business can ever turn a profit is, however, anyone’s guess: it currently employs an astonishing 800 engineers and has been shelling out cash for 17 long years. In 2020, it reported an operating loss of $275 million (£199 million) and in 2019 the figure was $213 million (£155 million).
Future prospects may also hinge on how much Bezos decides to charge. According to Reuters, he’s planning to undercut Branson by charging around $200,000 (£145,000) per flight.
Virgin Galactic’s efforts to send its rocket into orbit have led to the accidental deaths of four people.
Three engineers died in 2007 when a ground test ended in an explosion at its base in California’s Mojave desert.
In a breach of health and safety protocol, they’d chosen not to watch an experiment from behind a purpose-built large earth barrier 400 yards away, but were instead standing next to a chain link fence, a stone’s throw from the test site.
In 2014, the first version of his spaceship, VSS Enterprise, broke apart mid-flight killing pilot Michael Alsbury.
It later emerged that he’d deployed the ‘feathering’ system by which the wings rotate to slow the vehicle’s descent prematurely, causing it to rip apart in mid-air.
Branson’s mis-steps have involved expectation management: when he founded the firm in 2004, he gave endless bullish interviews promising that regular flights would be under way in a few short years. Instead, the public has now been waiting for almost two decades.
Bezos, who founded Blue Origin around the same time, and was not touting for customers, by contrast chose to keep his trap shut. That hasn’t stopped critics attacking him, though. A petition, ‘Don’t let Jeff Bezos return to Earth’, currently boasts 153,000 signatures.
Space travel is inherently risky, and around one per cent of all manned space flights have ended in tragic accidents.
Rockets can fail, or explode, cabins lose pressure and the physical forces caused by hurtling through the sky at thousands of miles per hour may tear a vehicle apart. Experts are therefore divided as to the wisdom of allowing paying punters to take sub-orbital flights.
‘To use the phrase “space tourism” is very misleading. It’s not going to be safe,’ says Professor Lord Martin Rees, Cambridge academic and the UK’s Astronomer Royal. ‘It will always be dangerous so will attract the sort of people who like to go hang-gliding or round-the-world ballooning.’
According to Don Pollacco, of the astrophysics research group at Warwick University’s Department of Physics, a single disaster could destroy the industry before it has even started.
‘The thing about these vehicles is that they involve a lot of moving forces and energy, and while on paper a design might look perfect, in reality, bad things happen. Look at the NASA shuttle programme.
‘Now just imagine when there’s an accident, which will eventually happen to one of these companies. I can’t see people queueing up in droves to fly with them after that.’
Martin Barstow, professor of Astrophysics and Space Science at the University of Leicester, is more bullish, saying that on paper the Bezos mode of transport is likely to be safer than Branson’s.
‘I would say the capsule approach is more tried and tested and likely to have a higher degree of reliability. Russians use it. Apollo does it.
‘The shuttle concept was developed to be cheaper and more reliable than rockets but ended up being more costly and less reliable.’ But, he cautions, only time will tell.
IS IT EVEN SPACE?
Virgin Galactic’s three test flights reached maximum altitudes of between 51.4 and 55.9 miles from the surface of the Earth, which is roughly the same distance planned for Branson’s maiden mission.
That’s high enough for those on board to be able to call themselves astronauts, according to NASA, along with America’s Federal Aviation Authority and the U.S. military. They believe space starts at 50 miles up.
But others disagree, saying that you don’t really leave Earth until you reach the Karman Line, a boundary that lies roughly 62 miles up. That’s the altitude accepted by the world governing body for aeronautic and astronautic records, the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI).
‘Branson is only going to the edge of space,’ says Lord Martin Rees. ‘He will see that the sky is black, not blue, and be able to look at the curvature of the Earth, if only through quite a small window. But that’s it. He won’t really go to space, in my view.’
That view is shared by Blue Origin’s CEO Bob Smith who recently emailed the New York Times to stress that his rocket will be going a good ten miles higher than Branson’s: ‘We wish him a great and safe flight, but they’re not flying above the Karman Line, and it’s a very different experience.’
PS: Neither Branson nor Bezos can fly anything like as high as the world’s second wealthiest man, the Tesla founder Elon Musk.
His company SpaceX builds rockets capable of actually going into orbit, and in April managed to successfully ferry two NASA astronauts to the International Space station. Later this year, he plans to send an all-civilian crew on a three to four-day mission that will see them orbit Earth at least once.
Musk has also agreed to fly a Japanese billionaire around the Moon on a rocket named Starship in 2023. Although the tech billionaire won’t be on these flights, his ambitions extend not only to eventually visiting space but also reaching Mars and establishing a human colony there. In previous interviews he’s even said he’d like to eventually die there, adding wryly, ‘just not on impact’.
His relative success makes him scathing of rival rocket-men. Earlier this year, SpaceX was hired by NASA to build a new moon lander, prompting a complaint from Bezos, whose Blue Origin had also bid for the contract. Musk hit back on Twitter, saying the Amazon founder ‘can’t get it up (to orbit)’.