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Branson aims to beat Bezos to orbit in final stretch of billionaire space race

Two billionaires are neck and neck in the final sprint to the Kármán line, but Richard Branson may clinch it with a July 11 flight on a Virgin Galactic spacecraft, narrowly beating out Jeff Bezos’s planned July 20 trip aboard a Blue Origin New Shepard capsule. Whoever wins, the real lesson here is that with enough money, you truly can do anything.

The news came today in the form of an announcement from Virgin Galactic stating that the launch window for its next test flight opens at 6 AM Pacific time on July 11, and that the mission will be the first to carry a full crew: two pilots, three specialists, and one billionaire. (Blue Origin had its own announcement.)

Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci will pilot the VSS Unity spacecraft; Chief Astronaut instructor Beth Moses will oversee the flight; Lead Operations Engineer Colin Bennett will monitor cabin equipment and procedures; Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations Sirisha Bandla will be handling a University of Florida microgravity experiment; and lastly, Sir Richard Branson “will evaluate the private astronaut experience.” In other words, he’s the first plain old passenger.

“I truly believe that space belongs to all of us,” the billionaire founder and private funder of the space tourism company said in the company’s press release. “After more than 16 years of research, engineering, and testing, Virgin Galactic stands at the vanguard of a new commercial space industry, which is set to open space to humankind and change the world for good. It’s one thing to have a dream of making space more accessible to all; it’s another for an incredible team to collectively turn that dream into reality. As part of a remarkable crew of mission specialists, I’m honoured to help validate the journey our future astronauts will undertake and ensure we deliver the unique customer experience people expect from Virgin.”

The mission will, like others in the Virgin Galactic style, involve being flown by traditional means to what is normally considered a high altitude, after which the rocket-powered VSS Unity will detach from the plane and zoom up to above 80 kilometers, generally (though not universally) considered the edge of space. Branson will have gone through all the same training that future Virgin Galactic space tourists will go through, and will of course wear the same special blue suit.

If all goes according to plan, Branson will beat Bezos to space by a little more than a week, and probably win a long-running bet.

Bezos, for his part, will be going up July 11 (again, delays notwithstanding) on a more traditional launch vehicle, Blue Origin’s New Shepard, accompanied by his brother and a lucky ticket-holder — lucky and rich, that is, since the ticket ended up selling at auction for $28 million to an as-yet unannounced party.

The company did however today announce that the fourth passenger on the first crewed flight will be Wally Funk, the first graduate of NASA’s Mercury 13 program that trained women astronauts in 1961 — but the mission was cancelled and Funk never went to space. After 50 years of waiting, it seems she’ll finally get her chance.