Branson departed Earth on Sunday, July 11 — while fellow billionaire and space enthusiast Jeff Bezos is due to take off today
Average Earthlings may run marathons for some light-hearted excitement, but billionaire men take competitive racing to a whole other level — or shall we say, ozone layer. Indeed, three billionaires are seemingly partaking in a rich-man space sprint. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson took the lead – but Jeff Bezos was hot on his heels and launched to the edge of space today,
Branson departed Earth earlier this month, just twelve days before fellow billionaire and space enthusiast Bezos scheduled his own extraterrestrial excursion.
Bezos, who is currently the richest person on Planet Earth, announced his plans to travel to space in an Instagram post shared May 5. He and his brother would fly in the New Shepard rocket, produced by Blue Venture, the space-travel business venture Bezos founded in 2000.
Meanwhile, Elon Musk, the third richest person in the world (but sometimes second, depending on when you look), plans to send an “all-civilian” crew to space via the end of 2021 via his space technology company, SpaceX, founded in 2002. SpaceX has already launched NASA astronauts into space, but Musk himself has yet to embark on an expedition himself.
Which brings us to Branson, the 547th richest person on Earth (still worth a whopping $5.6 billion, not particularly small potatoes), who took the lead over both Bezos and Musk in their long-awaited quests to leave the planet. On July 1, Branson announced that he would actually be the first to to partake in interplanetary travel— via his own Virgin Galactic, which the entrepreneur founded in 2004 (and, spoiler, he did).
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So, what’s driving the billionaires to leave Planet Earth? Should we be… worried?
Probably, but also, it seems they just so happened to both be young boys when the Apollo 11 landed on the moon – both Branson and Bezos have specifically credited the event for inspiring them to someday pursue extraterrestrial travel.
“I got infected by that,” Bezos told CBS News. “You don’t chase your passions, they chase you. So I’ve been dreaming and getting ready for this for a long time.” Branson said the same via The Today Show, during which he also insisted he’s not racing Bezos into space.
“I know nobody will believe me when I say it, but honestly, there isn’t [competition],” he said.
With all this travelling to space happening before our eyes, we set out to investigate: How do the billionaire space tourism ventures compare?
When do passenger flights begin?
All three companies have plans to offer “space tourism” to “regular civilians.”
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Blue Origin accepted bids for a seat on its first passenger launch, upon which Bezos also had a spot. Ultimately, the ticket to ride aboard the New Shepard was auctioned off to the highest bidder, although that mystery passenger was later replaced by 18-year-old physics student Oliver Daeman, due to a conflicting schedule. This first flight took off on July 20, 2021.
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SpaceX is the first to announce a set time-frame for their full civilian flights, the first of which falls in “late 2021,” though some publications, like Space.com, specifically report September. This flight, funded by billionaire Jared Isaacman, will raise money for St. Jude’s Childrens’ Research Hospital.
The following SpaceX passenger flight is scheduled for 2022, and will be organised by Axiom Space.
How much do flights cost?
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Virgin Galactic’s ship launched from an aircraft mothership (named after Branson’s own mother, Eve) and soared to 55 miles, or 88 kilometres, above sea level. This, too, is considered just under the “edge” of space — as space officially is considered to begin at 60 feet in the air.
SpaceX passengers are launched significantly further into space, as its capsules — of both crew and cargo — actually orbit around Earth, as opposed to remaining on the periphery of outer-space. Per the SpaceX website, their Mission Earth Orbit allows you to “experience the blue planet from over 300km up” (186 miles).
Who’s on board?
Bezos inviting Wally Funk as his honoured guest.AP
Blue Venture’s first passenger flight will carried Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, 18-year-old physics student Oliver Daeman and 82-year-old aviator Wally Funk. Funk was the youngest graduate of the Woman in Space Program, during which she was successfully underwent the same tests required of the Project Mercury astronauts. Unfortunately, she never got a chance to go to space due to her gender — until now, that is.
Altitude chamber training: ✅
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The SpaceX flight set to take off in late 2021 is raising money for St. Jude’s Research Hospital. Therefore, it felt appropriate for the flight’s funder, Jared Isaacman, to invite Hayley Arceneux, a 29-year-old St. Jude’s physician’s assistant who was also treated at St. Jude’s as a child, as one of his passengers.
Two more lucky winners were awarded seats in March 2021: Sian Proctor, a community college educator and Chris Sembroski, a former Air Force missile man.
The Virgin Galactic crew.Photo Credit: RichardBranson/Twitter.
Virgin Galactic’s first flight carried Richard Branson, two pilots, and three Virgin Galactic employees: Beth Moses, Chief Astronaut Instructor, Colin Bennett, Lead Operations Engineer, and and Sirisha Bandl, Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations. The pilots were Dave Mackay, British Chief Pilot of Virgin Galactic and former RAF test pilot, and Michael Masucci, a former U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel.
Virgin Galactic’s stylish blue suits were created in collaboration with athleisure-wear company Under Armour. Per TechCrunch, the suits were created with “input” from doctors, pilots, clothing designers and astronaut trainers, and tested in labs to ensure the garments would hold up in space.
Under Armour CEO drew parallels to Star Trek when discussing the suits, though to be honest, these suits really just resemble a standard Under Armour sweatsuit — something one could wear while grocery shopping, or working from home. They’re a bit heavy for that, though: The suit weighs 10 pounds (still 10 pounds lighter than previous designs). Plus, the gloves work on touch-screens. Over all, impressively chic suits, just not what one expects when they think “space travel.”
The SpaceX are likely the most star-studded of all seeing as Musk quite literally tapped a Hollywood costume designer to assist in their creation. Jose Fernandez, a costume designer for Batman v Superman, The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and X-Men II assisted in bringing Musk’s vision to live, so there is certainly a cinematic — and superhero-like — quality to the impressive apparel.
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“I personally spent a lot of time — it took us three, almost four years to design these suits that both look good and work well,” Musk said of the suits during NASA’s live coverage of a launch attempt in May 2021. Fernandez also spoke with Bleep magazine about Musk’s vision for the suits. “When people put this spacesuit on, he wants them to look better than they did without it, like a tux…You look heroic in it.”
The classic “astronaut” looking suits (in the sense that they’re white with black boots) are sleek, modern, and well, resemble a Tesla in human-suit form. But also, have slight Storm Trooper vibes. Sorry!
Whick rocket is coolest?
All phallic jokes aside, here’s how the billionaires’ rockets compare.
Photo Credit: Blue Origin/Youtube
Blue Origin took off in the “New Shepard” rocket, named after Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard. It looks like a rocket should: A round capsule sitting atop long, white, and tubular shaft — the launching vehicle.
Per the Blue Origin website, this “reusable suborbital rocket system” is “designed to take astronauts and research payloads past the Kármán line – the internationally recognized boundary of space” in just 11 minutes.
The capsule, which holds up to six space travellers, is allegedly home to the “largest windows to have flown in space.” What’s more, there are no pilots, as the vehicle is completely autonomous. “Every person onboard is a passenger-there are no pilots,” the site says. This reminds us of science fiction horror films past, but alas.
Photo Credit: The TODAY Show
Branson and his crew took off in sleek ship “Unity,” which launched from a mothership named after Branson’s own mother, “Eve.”
Unity is carried up into the sky by Eve, then dropped from the bottom of her wing going 3 and a half thousand miles per hour, officially taking off for space from there.
Unity looks significantly less phallic than the New Shepard, and looks a bit more like an especially high-tech private jet, which makes sense, considering Branson’s relationship with Virgin Airlines. Whatever the case, Branson is quite pleased with the design. “I always envisioned as a kid that a spaceship should look like this,” he said on The TODAY Show. “I just thought, that’s how you should fly to space.”
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The SpaceX passenger flight scheduled for departure in 2021 will take off in the Falcon 9 rocket, which according to SpaceX, is “the first orbital class rocket capable of reflight.” Per the SpaceX site, “reusability allows SpaceX to rely the most expensive parts of the rocket which in turn drives down the cost of space access.”
Like the New Shepard, the Falcon 9 is also long, and mostly white — but this one is so long and thin it almost resembles a flute — one that measures 229 feet, or 70 metres.
The Falcon 9 is our personal favourite rocket, and preferred method of space travel, if we had to choose — mainly because it’s already flown back and forth successfully — and orbited Planet Earth.
Thus far, the Falcon 9 has already been launched 122 times and landed 82. We won’t ask what happened the other 40 instances.