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Branson vs Bezos: Who's really going to win this Space Race?

Jeff Bezos with a model of Blue Origin's Blue Moon lunar lander in Washington, left, and Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo space tourism rocket in Mojave, California. 
Jeff Bezos with a model of Blue Origin's Blue Moon lunar lander in Washington, left, and Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo space tourism rocket in Mojave, California.  (AP)

The Amazon.com founder may not be first to blast off but he has far more financial firepower. He's even winning the public relations battle.

Within the next fortnight, two of the Earth’s wealthiest individuals will attempt to fly into space. Richard Branson’s flight on Sunday aboard a Virgin Galactic spaceship will be followed by Jeff Bezos’s rocket trip with Blue Origin on July 20. In a summer not lacking in awe-inspiring spectator sports, this rivalry remains pretty unique. And it’s not without risk. It’s taken a couple of decades for both men to realize their ambition of going into space. Blue Origin was founded in 2000 and Virgin Galactic four years later. The critics will harp that they could have devoted their time and money toward more worthy terrestrial endeavors (and paying more tax). Their jostling to be first smacks of billionaire bravado.

Yet the spectacle is unmissable. If seeing Earth’s majestic curvature inspires better care of this planet, then I’m all for rich folks taking a joyride into space. (At around $250,000 a ticket to fly with Virgin Galactic, this remains a rich person’s pastime.) And if Branson and Bezos’s space odyssey inspires even a handful of kids to attempt hard things, so much the better. I just hope nobody feels ill: Branson is planning to live-stream his trip.

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While there’s symmetry in billionaires blasting off within days of each other, Branson and Bezos have followed quite different technical paths and they’ve done so with markedly different budgets. They can’t even agree on what technically counts as “space”.

Bezos is adamant that space begins at the internationally recognized Karman line some 62 miles (100 kilometers) above sea level. Blue Origin typically reaches an apogee of around 66 miles. By contrast, Virgin Galactic flies to an altitude of around 55 miles, thereby surpassing the 50-mile mark at which U.S. military pilots are awarded their astronaut wings. For what it’s worth, I don’t think this matters.

Bezos’s New Shepard rocket takes off and lands vertically, whereas the Virgin Galactic spaceflight system comprises a rocket ship that detaches from a carrier aircraft at around 45,000 feet, having taken off horizontally much as a regular plane would. Virgin Galactic has completed three piloted suborbital space flights already. Blue Origin has been to space 15 times, but never with people on board.

Bezos appears to be outspending Branson and no wonder: Bezos’s $214 billion fortune makes Branson look like a pauper. The Virgin Group founder is worth “just” $7.9 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Bezos has sold around $1 billion of Amazon.com Inc. stock annually to fund Blue Origin. By comparison, Branson has said he’s invested almost $1 billion in Virgin Galactic, which burns through around $250 million of cash yearly. He’s sold several chunks of Virgin Galactic stock to help fund his pandemic-hit terrestrial interests. If Sunday’s flight is a success I’m convinced that Virgin Galactic will soon raise more capital while the shares are flying high.

Branson has historically made up for what he lacks in financial power with a talent for self-publicity. His last-minute bid to beat Bezos into space is pure Branson, as were indiscreet comments about his wife vowing not to attend his funeral if he doesn’t make it home.

Though he may have to settle for second in space, I still think Bezos has outplayed Branson here. Auctioning off a seat for $28 million with the proceeds put to encouraging kids to go into math and science was inspired. So was extending an invitation to Wally Funk to join him on the trip. The 82-year-old skilled pilot will fulfill her own lifelong dream of going into space — I’m more excited for her than for Bezos. He even managed to squeeze a few shots of an Amazon-backed Rivian electric pick-up truck into a Blue Origin promotional film.

Of course, that’s nothing compared to another billionaire space-nut I’ve not mentioned yet, Elon Musk. His Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) fired a Tesla Roadster into space in 2018 aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket with a Starman mannequin in the vehicle’s driver seat. Musk’s next ambition is to send humans to Mars. Bezos and Branson will have to up their game.

This article has been written by Chris Bryant. Bryant is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies. He previously worked for the Financial Times.

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