In the next 10 days, two of the Earth’s wealthiest individuals will attempt to fly into space. Richard Branson’s flight on Sunday aboard a Virgin Galactic spaceship will be followed by Jeff Bezos’s rocket trip with Blue Origin on 20 July. In a season not lacking in awe-inspiring spectator sports, this rivalry remains pretty unique. And it’s not without risk.
It’s taken a couple of decades for both men to realise their ambition of going into space. Blue Origin was founded in 2000 and Virgin Galactic four years later. The critics will harp on that they could have devoted their time and money toward more worthy terrestrial endeavours (and paying more tax). Their jostling to be first smacks of billionaire bravado.
Yet the spectacle is unmissable. If seeing Earth’s majestic curvature inspires better care of this planet, then I’m all for rich folks taking a joyride into space. (At around the equivalent of R3.5-million a ticket to fly with Virgin Galactic, this remains a rich person’s pastime.)
And if Branson and Bezos’s space odyssey inspires even a handful of kids to attempt hard things, so much the better. I just hope nobody feels ill: Branson is planning to live stream his trip.
While there’s symmetry in billionaires blasting off within days of each other, Branson and Bezos have followed quite different technical paths and they’ve done so with markedly different budgets. They can’t even agree on what technically counts as “space”.
Bezos is adamant that space begins at the internationally recognised Kármán line 100km above sea level. Blue Origin typically reaches an apogee of around 106km. By contrast, Virgin Galactic flies to an altitude of around 55 miles, thereby surpassing the 88km mark at which US military pilots are awarded their astronaut wings. For what it’s worth, I don’t think this matters.
Bezos’s New Shepard rocket takes off and lands vertically, whereas Virgin Galactic spaceflight system comprises a rocket ship that detaches from a carrier aircraft at around 13.4km, having taken off horizontally much as a regular plane would. Virgin Galactic has completed three piloted suborbital space flights already. Blue Origin has been to space 15 times, but never with people on board.
Bezos appears to be outspending Branson and no wonder: Bezos’s $214-billion fortune makes Branson look like a pauper. The Virgin Group founder is worth “just” $7.9-billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Bezos has sold around $1-billion of Amazon.com stock annually to fund Blue Origin. By comparison, Branson has said he’s invested almost $1-billion in Virgin Galactic, which burns through around $250-million of cash yearly. He’s sold several chunks of Virgin Galactic stock to help fund his pandemic-hit terrestrial interests. If Sunday’s flight is a success, I’m convinced that Virgin Galactic will soon raise more capital while the shares are flying high.
Branson has historically made up for what he lacks in financial power with a talent for self-publicity. His last-minute bid to beat Bezos into space is pure Branson, as were indiscreet comments about his wife vowing not to attend his funeral if he doesn’t make it home.
Though he may have to settle for second in space, I still think Bezos has outplayed Branson here. Auctioning off a seat for $28-million with the proceeds put to encouraging kids to go into maths and science was inspired. So was extending an invitation to Wally Funk to join him on the trip. The 82-year-old skilled pilot will fulfil her own lifelong dream of going into space — I’m more excited for her than for Bezos. He even managed to squeeze a few shots of an Amazon-backed Rivian electric bakkie into a Blue Origin promotional film.
Of course, that’s nothing compared to another billionaire space-nut I’ve not mentioned yet, Elon Musk. His SpaceX fired a Tesla Roadster into space in 2018 aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket with a Starman mannequin in the vehicle’s driver seat. Musk’s next ambition is to send humans to Mars. Bezos and Branson will have to up their game. — By Chris Bryant, (c) 2021 Bloomberg LP