Three billionaire entrepreneurs, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, are competing to usher in a new era of commercial space tourism. Here’s how their rival ventures compare in the race to open the final frontier to wealthy, would-be citizen astronauts.
Branson, Bezos and Musk have been investing billions of dollars in their space companies, each promising to ferry paying customers on rides to space — and it will cost a hefty fee to book a seat.
Branson’s Virgin Galactic has said it has amassed more than 600 reservations already, priced around US$250 000/ticket. It expects to begin regular commercial services in 2022 and eventually hopes to slash the ticket price to around $40 000. Branson himself is due to occupy one of six seats aboard his company’s first fully crewed test flight to space on Sunday.
Reuters reported in 2018 that Bezos’ Blue Origin was planning to charge passengers at least $200 000 for a ride, based on an appraisal of Branson’s rival plans and other considerations, though its thinking may have changed. Blue has not divulged its long-term pricing structure.
An as-yet unidentified person secured one of the seats on Blue’s first suborbital mission, slated for 20 July, with a $28-million auction bid. That passenger will be joined by Bezos, his brother Mark, and Wally Funk, one of 13 women who passed Nasa’s astronaut training programme in the 1960s and will now become the oldest person to travel in space, at age 82.
Musk’s SpaceX has already sent astronauts and cargo payloads to the International Space Station, and the company has plans to launch an all-civilian crew into orbit in September. Musk has also said SpaceX will fly Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa around the moon with its forthcoming Starship rocket in 2023.
Virgin Galactic’s reusable SpaceShipTwo system will see its VSS Unity spaceplane hoisted by a large, twin-fuselage carrier jet to 15km, before it separates and rockets straight up through the top of the atmosphere, about 88km up. The spaceplane then glides back to land on a runway.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket-and-capsule combo blasts off directly into suborbital space before separating. The rocket section flies itself back to the launchpad, while the pressurised capsule falls back to Earth under parachutes. It features six observation windows — the most ever in a space vehicle.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule sits atop a reusable Falcon 9 rocket, which it uses to reach orbit.
Crew and passengers
Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane can hold six people: two crew and four passengers.
Blue Origin’s craft can take six passengers and flies autonomously.
The SpaceX Dragon capsule is capable of carrying up to seven people.
Virgin Galactic boasts a total flight time of around 90 minutes from take-off to landing, including about four minutes of microgravity.
Blue Origin’s capsule suborbital flight is around 10 minutes after separation. Again, those on board experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of the planet before returning to Earth.
The SpaceX missions are expected to last three to four days from launch to splashdown.
Typical of Branson’s ventures, Virgin Galactic is publicly funded. Its shares peaked at almost $60 following US Federal Aviation Administration approval of passenger travel in June 2021.
Blue Origin is privately owned, with Amazon.com founder Bezos previously indicating he would sell around $1-billion in Amazon stock annually to fund the venture.
SpaceX is also privately owned and has raised billions of dollars in successive funding rounds. Key investors include Alphabet and Fidelity. Musk says fees charged for SpaceX’s charter flights will go toward missions to the moon and eventually Mars. — Reported by John Hyland, Eric M Johnson and Steve Gorman, (c) 2021 Reuters