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The Jeff Bezos-Richard Branson Space Race Is About More Than Two Billionaires’ Egos

4 minute read

Nobody is selling Team Bezos or Team Branson t-shirts just yet. The competition between billionaires Jeff Bezos (founder of Blue Origin) and Richard Branson (co-founder of Virgin Galactic) to see who can be first to space may never have the historical cachet of Red Sox versus Yankees, Lincoln versus Douglas, Hamilton versus Burr, but it’s a hot contest all the same. This Sunday, July 11, it could reach its pinnacle, when Branson, along with three other Virgin Galactic corporate officers and two pilots, take off aboard their VSS Unity space plane to attempt a suborbital mission that will earn all six their astronaut wings—not to mention bragging rights over Bezos, whose own flight aboard his New Shepard spacecraft is set to happen nine days later, on July 20.

Originally, Bezos was going to fly first, with Branson not scheduled to make his attempt until the end of the year. But on July 1, Bezos notched a public relations win when he announced that he was taking 82 year old Wally Funk—one of 13 female astronaut candidates in the 1960s, all of whom were passed over by NASA in favor of an all-male astronaut corps—on his inaugural flight with him, at last giving her a long-denied taste of space. Just hours later, Branson jumped the flight queue, announcing his earlier July 11 launch date—and, not incidentally, winning back the space race news cycle.

“I know nobody will believe me, but honestly there isn’t [any competition with Bezos],” Branson later told NBC’s Today.

VSS Unity
Virgin Galactic's SpaceshipTwo takes off for a suborbital test flight of the VSS Unity on December 13, 2018, in Mojave, California.Gene Blevins—AFP/Getty Images

Maybe, but a competition is exactly what it looks like, and there is technological and economic substance behind the rivalry. For better or worse, space tourism is likely to become a growth industry. Branson reportedly has a waiting list of more than 600 space vacationers ready to pay $250,000 each for a 15 minute ride to space. Bezos, who came to the game later, has not yet begun his marketing push, but there is little doubt that if his mission succeeds, the selling will begin.

Branson has the edge in crewed flight experience: his VSS Unity vehicle has made three successful trips to space. Blue Origin’s New Shepard has not yet carried crew, but it has made 15 uncrewed, automated suborbital flights. New Shepard takes off like a traditional rocket, with a crew capsule separating near the peak of the flight parabola, arcing into space for three minutes of weightless sightseeing, and descending by parachute, while the rocket itself lands upright. VSS Unity is a winged rocket plane, which is carried by a four-engine jet to an altitude of about 15,240 m (50,000 ft), flies the rest of the way to space under rocket power, and then lands like an airplane.

Critically—at least for that business of bragging rights—Bezos’ New Shepard will fly higher, breaking the 100 km (62 mi.) boundary known as the Von Kármán Line, which is the widely accepted definition of the threshold of space. Branson’s VSS Unity climbs only to 80 km (50 mi.) which, while lower, is the point that the U.S. military historically recognized as the space boundary for test pilots flying early X-15 rocket planes. To Blue Origin, that makes a difference. “We wish him a great and safe flight, but they’re not flying above the Kármán line and it’s a very different experience,” Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said in an email to TIME.

New Shepard
New Shepard lifts off on its 12th mission on December 11, 2019.Blue Origin

Others outside the Bezos and Branson camps don’t see much distinction. “I think if you’re leaving the atmosphere and you’re floating, you’re an astronaut,” says retired NASA astronaut and former International Space Station commander Terry Virts.

More important than the astronaut label Branson and Bezos stand to earn—and certainly more important than who flies first—is the matter of getting up and down safely. Space has always been a dangerous game. It’s true for test pilots, it’s true for tourists, it’s even true for fabulously rich men who build their own spacecraft and pay their own freight. The billionaire space race may play out like a game—but it’s a deadly serious business too.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com