Two ships, two companies, but one goal for billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson: to finally cross the frontier of space themselves. 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 an astounding 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 budding industry of space tourism.
Because if the two bosses are among the first passengers of Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, their goal is indeed, in fine, to allow hundreds of (wealthy) travelers to go and admire with their own eyes, for a few minutes, the curvature of the earth.
They will not be the first billionaires to go into space: the American of Hungarian origin Charles Simonyi, then the Canadian founder of Cirque du Soleil Guy Laliberté, had spent several days aboard the International Space Station in 2007 and 2009, but then made the trip aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket.
Bezos and Branson will therefore be the first to fly in vessels developed by companies they themselves created.
“It’s just an amazing and wonderful coincidence that we were going there in the same month“, declared the Briton to the Washington Post, assuring that the announcement at the last minute of the date of his flight, July 11, was “truly not” programmed to beat the founder of Amazon, who must embark him on the 20th.
Already 600 tickets purchased
The first flight will therefore be that of Virgin Galactic, Sunday from New Mexico.
The scheduled take-off time has not yet been communicated, but the company has specified that a live video broadcast will take place from 07:00 a.m. local time (3:00 p.m. in Belgium).
A carrier plane will take off from a conventional runway, then drop the ship hanging under it at altitude, the model of which is called SpaceShipTwo, and the particular example used on Sunday is called VSS Unity.
The two pilots aboard the ship will then turn on its engine for a supersonic ascent, until it exceeds 80 km in altitude – the height set in the United States for the frontier of space. The passengers, Richard Branson and three other Virgin Galactic employees, will then be able to detach and float in zero gravity for a few minutes.
The ship will then descend while hovering.
The role of the founder of the Virgin group? Test and evaluate the experience that future customers will have, a priori from 2022.
About 600 people have already paid for their ticket: between 200,000 and 250,000 dollars.
“When I return, I will announce something very exciting to allow more people to become astronauts“, he promised.
First manned flight
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 take off vertically from West Texas. The capsule will separate at about 75 km in height, 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 usually fly about 10 km high.
After a few minutes, the capsule will begin a free fall to return to Earth, slowed down 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 archrival SpaceX, which plans far 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 having been announced as imminent for years, the advent of space tourism remains dependent on the total success of these tests.
In 2014, a Virgin Galactic spacecraft accident caused the death of a pilot, significantly delaying the program. And a new dramatic event of this kind is not allowed.