In Big Middle Finger to Bezos, Richard Branson Set to Become the First Billionaire in Space

In Big Middle Finger to Bezos, Richard Branson Set to Become the First Billionaire in Space
Photo: Johannis Eisele, Getty Images

Virgin Galactic founder and billionaire Richard Branson announced Thursday he will travel beyond the Earth’s atmosphere in a test flight set for July 11. If the launch goes according to plan, he’ll be the first billionaire in space, setting the record just nine days ahead of the first planned spaceflight of another obscenely rich astronaut wannabe — Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Talk about stealing the show.

“I’ve always been a dreamer,” Branson said on Twitter. “My mum taught me to never give up and to reach for the stars. On July 11, it’s time to turn that dream into a reality aboard the next Virgin Galactic spaceflight.”

Two pilots and four missions specialists will travel aboard the VSS Unity with Branson, who will be “testing the private astronaut experience,” Virgin Galactic said in an announcement Thursday. The so-called Unity 22 mission will be the space tourism firm’s fourth crewed test flight of its spaceplane and marks an important milestone in the race to commercialize travel beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

“I truly believe that space belongs to all of us,” Branson said in a statement alongside the company’s announcement. “After 17 years of research, engineering and innovation, Virgin Galactic stands at the vanguard of a new commercial space industry poised to open the universe to humankind and change the world for good.”

Meanwhile, Blue Origin announced last month that Bezos, the company’s founder, will travel to space aboard its first crewed flight of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle on July 20. Alongside several crewmembers, he’ll be joined by his brother, Mark, and a mysterious bidder who dropped $36 million for the honour of tagging along.

Reuters recently reported that Branson was considering fast-tracking his own mission to beat out Bezos’ planned trip. Virgin Galactic made a significant step toward making that a reality last week when it obtained an upgraded licence from the Federal Aviation Administration to include paying customers on its space flights.

To date, the VSS Unity, which is designed to carry up to six passengers and two pilots, has completed 21 test flights. Following Branson’s trip, two additional test flights are still on the schedule before Virgin Galactic expects to begin commercial service in 2022, the company said Thursday. It has some 600 reservations for seats on future flights, each ticket going for between $US200,000 ($256,520) and $US250,000 ($320,650).