Richard Branson, a British billionaire, intends to beat fellow billionaire and rival Jeff Bezos to space. Virgin Galactic, Branson’s company, announced on Thursday that he will attempt to fly in the company’s rocket-powered plane on July 11 — nine days before Bezos’ planned launch on July 20th.
Branson, not Bezos, will be the first billionaire to travel to space aboard a spacecraft he helped fund, according to the announcement.
Virgin Galactic had hoped to begin flying customers years ago, but the company’s development program was hampered by a series of setbacks, including a test flight accident in 2014 that claimed the life of a co-pilot.
Branson and Bezos have been competing since the early 2000s to develop, test, and launch suborbital rockets capable of taking wealthy thrillseekers on brief 2,300-mph rides a few dozen miles above Earth. Their efforts have been dubbed the “billionaire space race” for years.
Branson, on the other hand, has repeatedly stated in interviews that he is not interested in “racing” to space.
“People have turned it into a race,” he told CNN Business’ Rachel Crane during a recent interview. “It would be very dangerous to say turn it into a race. And the moment we have every boxed ticked, I will go up and then we will invite some of the people who have signed up to go with us — but we honestly don’t see it as a race.”
Bezos will fly alongside his brother, Mark Bezos, as Blue Origin announced earlier this month. Later, it was announced that they would be joined by Wally Funk, an 82-year-old woman who underwent similar training to NASA’s Mercury program but was denied the opportunity to go to space, as were all American women at the time, and the winner of an auction who paid $28 million for the chance. (The name of the auction winner has yet to be revealed.)
Virgin Galactic interrupted Blue Origin’s string of announcements to reveal that Branson would be on Virgin Galactic’s next test flight out of New Mexico, a departure from earlier plans to fly four “mission specialists” on its fourth powered test flight before allowing Branson on board. Branson will be joined on his flight by Beth Moses, the company’s head of training who has flown on a previous test flight, and fellow Virgin Galactic employees Colin Bennett and Sirisha Bandla, according to a press release issued by Virgin Galactic on Thursday.
Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, is also frequently mentioned in the “space race” game, but SpaceX’s rockets are far more powerful than Branson and Bezos’ suborbital tourism rockets, and Musk has said little about his personal space ambitions other than that he’d “like to die on Mars — just not on impact.”