The billionaire space race seems to be in full swing, and it’s getting closer. Both Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson could have the edge of space in their sights next month.
Bezos announced Monday that he plans to fly into space aboard the New Shepard rocket developed by Blue Origin, the aerospace company he founded in 2000. The launch is slated for July 20.
The next day a report by Douglas Messier, who has long run the space blog Parabolic Arc, has indicated that Virgin Galactic may rush to launch its own founder, Branson, ahead of Bezos. A “source who requested anonymity” told Messier that the company planned to fly Branson on a test flight of its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane over the weekend of July 4. This would allow Branson to beat Bezos in the space of two narrow weeks.
According to Messier’s source, the company started making these plans in response to Blue Origin setting a date for its first crewed flight. Blue Origin made the announcement on May 5 – long before Bezos announced he would be on board.
Insider was unable to independently confirm Messier’s report. But in a statement to Insider, a spokesperson for Virgin Galactic did not deny the report’s claims.
“At the moment, we have not determined the date of our next flight,” said the spokesperson.
Branson’s flight is “scheduled for the summer months,” the spokesperson added, as is a separate test flight with four “mission specialists” – employees playing the roles of future passengers.
Virgin Galactic has previously said mission specialists will fly before Branson. But on Wednesday, the spokesperson did not respond to a question on which of the two flights would come first.
“One could easily imagine just swapping the flights, or having Richard Branson fly in one of those four seats, just as a test subject, if you will,” George Nield, former associate administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, where he has headed its Office of Commercial Space Transportation, Insider said.
Branson has “been involved in some pretty risky things in his career,” Nield added. “And he obviously believes in this program. If he’s convinced that everything is fine and is ready to go on his own, then more power for him.”
“It’s pretty funny, these billionaires are entertaining themselves by being on the first flights of their vehicles,” John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and former member of the NASA Advisory Board, told Insider. “The spacecraft is also supposed to do an orbital test. [Musk] gonna take the bait and fly on that? “
Launching Branson by July 4th is “very doable”
Virgin Galactic could easily go through the paperwork to get Branson flying by July 4, according to Nield.
“To me, it seems absolutely very doable,” he said, while stressing that he was unaware of communications between Virgin Galactic and the FAA, which authorizes commercial rocket launches.
Virgin Galactic may need to change its license with the FAA to fly Branson. The amendment would allow the company to fly “participants” as well as crew members (in this case, pilots and mission specialists). But Nield says the change would be quick and easy, as long as data from the last flight doesn’t reveal any major issues.
“The change in the license is just to say, ‘take out paragraph five,’” Nield said. “So that’s okay.”
Branson might even get a new role as a crew member – as a mission specialist, for example. Then, Virgin Galactic may not have to change its license at all to pilot it.
“In my opinion, nothing prevents Richard Branson from flying as a flight crew as well,” said Nield. “He’s an employee of the company, and they can assign him whatever jobs they want. It’s not something the FAA gets involved in. It depends on the company.”
When Insider asked about the report, an FAA spokesperson declined to say whether Virgin Galactic is pursuing a launch next month. Instead, the agency highlighted the modification of the “participant” license.
It’s unclear how much Virgin Galactic is expected to alter or speed up its initial plans to get Branson into space before Bezos.
“If you hurry there is always the possibility of saving money, but the people who deal with the theft have a great incentive not to kill their boss,” Logsdon said.