The new space race is hotting up in multiple different ways. Not only is there the race to film the first commercial movie in space, but there is an actual race to see which billionaire owner of a private space company will make it to space first.
Hot on the heels of Blue Origin owner and world's second-richest person Jeff Bezos announcing he will be on Blue Origin's first crewed trip to space on July 20 this year, it appears Virgin Galactic owner Richard Branson has thrown his hat in the ring.
First reported by Douglas Messier for Parabolic Arc, Virgin Galactic may be planning a suborbital flight for its founder aboard its VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket over the July 4 weekend – two weeks before Bezos's scheduled flight.
Bezos will be accompanied by his brother and the winner of an as-yet-unfinished auction (current bidding is at $3.8 million), flying on the New Shepard suborbital rocket on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing.
According to Messier, Virgin Galactic formulated the plan to send their leader to space after Blue Origin's May 5 announcement of its first crewed flight and auction for a seat on it, all proceeds of which will go to Club for the Future, a non-profit mission to inspire future generations to pursue careers in STEM.
Branson even congratulated Bezos on his news, potentially with a little tease of his own.
There are some hoops Virgin Galactic has to jump through first, and though they have now issued a vague statement, it doesn't deny the plan.
First, Virgin has to obtain a commercial reusable spacecraft operator's license from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) as the company currently only holds a license for flying employees as test subjects, not commercial. Virgin Galactic's statement said it is currently analyzing data from its first successful trip to space in May, and had more test flights planned, without confirming a date. However, there is a good chance it can get this license before the July 4 weekend.
Next, VSS Unity and its mothership SpaceShipTwo need to be ready to fly. VSS Unity has made three flights so far, and only reached suborbital space once. In fact, VSS Unity has not yet reached the Kármán line – the imaginary boundary 100 kilometers (62 miles) above sea level deemed "space" as it is the altitude where the atmosphere is too thin for regular aircraft to effectively fly, according to the world governing body for aeronautic and astronautic records, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Virgin Galactic's May 22 flight reached an altitude of 82.7 kilometers (51.4 miles), which is in line with the FAA and NASA's definition of anything above 80 kilometers (50 miles) being space.
New Shepherd, on the other hand, has reached the Kármán line multiple times on test flights already.
Where is Elon Musk in all this, you may ask? SpaceX has been flying crewed missions to space – the International Space Station itself, so no arguments about "space" here – since May 2020. Musk has expressed interest in flying to space on multiple occasions, but it's possible just reaching space isn't enough for this intrepid billionaire. He's often suggested he'd like to die on Mars – "just not on impact."
There's a good chance he'll just go up, and we'll only find out about it when he tweets from space. Or (plot twist) he wins Blue Origin's auction, and then it will be a billionaire space race to see who can undo their seatbelt the fastest and experience microgravity first.
A space race to be the first billionaire to leave Earth on your own rocket is pretty niche, there are only three contenders, but at this stage any could prove victorious, so, like Branson says, watch this space.