The billionaire rocketeers’ race has just gone up a notch after Richard Branson announced plans to beat fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos into space by nine days.
Mr Branson’s company Virgin Galactic announced on Thursday evening (local time) that its next test flight will be July 11 and its founder will be among the six people on board.
The winged rocket ship will lift off from New Mexico – the first carrying a full crew of company employees. It will be only the fourth trip to space for Virgin Galactic.
The news came just hours after Mr Bezos’ Blue Origin said Mr Bezos would be accompanied into space on July 20 by a female aerospace pioneer who’s waited 60 years to rocket away.
The shares of Mr Branson’s Virgin Galactic Holdings surged on the news.
Mr Bezos chose July 20 as his West Texas launch date – the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. He assigned himself to the flight just a month ago, the final stretch in a years-long race to space between the two rich rocketeers.
Amazon’s founder will be on Blue Origin’s debut launch with people on board, accompanied by his brother, the winner of a $US28 million charity auction and Mary Wallace ‘Wally’ Funk, one of the last surviving members of the Mercury 13 who was chosen as his “honoured guest”.
The 13 female pilots passed the same tests as NASA’s original Mercury 7 astronauts in the early 1960s, but were barred from the corps – and spaceflight – because they were women.
As late as Wednesday, Mr Branson declined to say when he would ride into space because of restrictions placed on him by his publicly traded company. But he stressed he was “fit and healthy” to fly as soon as his engineers give him the go.
Virgin Galactic launches its rocket ship from an aircraft, reaching an altitude of roughly 88 kilometres.
Blue Origin launches its New Shepard rocket from the ground, with its capsule soaring to about 106km.
Both those heights are considered the edge of space. By comparison, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launches its capsules – both crew and cargo – into orbit around earth.
All three private space companies plan to take paying customers into space. SpaceX will be the first with a private flight in September.
Virgin Galactic’s and Blue Origin’s flights last about 10 minutes, with three or so minutes of weightlessness.
Ms Funk, at age 82, will become the oldest person to launch into space when Blue Origin takes its turn.
“I’ll love every second of it. Whoooo! Ha-ha. I can hardly wait,” she said in an Instagram video posted by Mr Bezos.
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“No one has waited longer,” Mr Bezos said via Instagram. “It’s time. Welcome to the crew, Wally.”