Bezos' and Branson's fight for space billionaire supremacy: What to know

Virgin Orbit CEO on the billionaires’ race to space

Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart discusses the emerging leisure space travel market ahead of Richard Branson flying to space just nine days before Jeff Bezos.

The space race is heating up with Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson both slated to join their aerospace companies' first crewed flights this month. Branson is gearing up for a launch on Sunday, which would make him the first billionaire in space, while Bezos is targeting a takeoff on July 20. 

Here is everything you need to know about the upcoming flights and the men behind two of the biggest players in the aerospace industry.

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The missions

According to Virgin Galactic, Sunday's mission aboard VSS Unity 22 will be "testing the private astronaut experience." One of the main objectives will be to evaluate the "commercial customer cabin with a full crew," including the cabin environment, seat comfort, the weightless experience, and the views of Earth that the spaceship delivers, in order to ensure "every moment of the astronaut’s journey maximizes the wonder and awe created by space travel."

The VSS Unity and its mothership VMS Eve – named after Branson's mother – will climb together to an altitude just below 50,000 feet before the spaceship is released and its rocket ignites, sending the craft up "a little over Mach 3" to approximately 300,000 feet above Earth.

"The planet peers back at you through the ship’s 17 windows as you see home for the first time," Virgin Galactic notes on its website. "16 cameras throughout the cabin record every moment of the experience in HD."

Upon reentry, the VSS Unity's wings raise 60 degrees before lowering again after the ship descends into the atmosphere and the pilot lands on the runway – as exhibited in a successful test at the end of May following delays.

Branson says his role in Sunday's mission will be to "validate the journey our future astronauts will undertake and ensure we deliver the unique customer experience people expect from Virgin." 

He will be joined Virgin Galactic chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, lead operations engineer Colin Bennett, government affairs vice president Sirisha Bandla and pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci. Pilots C.J. Sturckow and Kelly Latimer will fly VMS Eve.

Meanwhile, Bezos, his brother Mark, 82-year-old female aerospace pioneer Mary Wallace Funk, and a mystery auction winner who paid $28 million will fill four seats on Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket, which will fly above the Kármán Line, an imaginary boundary between Earth's atmosphere and outer space which has been witnessed in person by less than 600 astronauts, according to Blue Origin. To date, New Shepard has flown 15 successful consecutive missions to space and back above the Kármán Line. 

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Bezos’ and Branson’s other business ventures

While both men have made significant contributions to innovation in the space industry, Bezos' and Branson's fortunes came primarily from other business ventures. 

Prior to founding Blue Origin in 2000, Bezos founded Amazon in 1994. Since its inception, the multibillion-dollar e-commerce giant has expanded globally with fulfillment centers to handle online orders, on-demand cloud computing through Amazon Web Services, and thousands of streaming content offerings through Prime Video. 

Amazon also entered the grocery and convenience space with the $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods in 2017, the launches of its Amazon Go and Amazon Fresh stores and its Amazon Pantry service. In addition, the company has made a foray into fashion with its Personal Shopper, Made For You custom clothing service and Luxury Stores collection.

Bezos announced in February that he would be stepping down from his role as chief executive officer to pursue other passions, including Blue Origin.

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Other Bezos-owned ventures include the Washington Post and his investment firm, Bezos Expeditions, which has backed projects including General Fusion's construction of a nuclear fusion plant in the United Kingdom, a 10,000-year clock, and an effort to recover F-1 engines that propelled Apollo 11 to the Moon from the Atlantic Ocean and display them in Seattle's Museum of Flight.

As for philanthropic projects, Bezos launched the Day 1 Fund, a $2 billion commitment to fund nonprofits helping families experiencing homelessness and to create a network of nonprofit tier-one preschools in low-income communities, the Bezos Earth Fund, which will spend a total of $10 billion by 2030 to provides scientists, activists and non-governmental organizations with $10 billion to aid in the fight against climate change, and the Bezos Family Foundation, which is focused on investing in "the science of learning and the experiences that youth need from birth to high school to pursue their own path for success."

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According to its website, Branson's Virgin Group started as a mail order record retailer in 1970. Since then, the company's portfolio has grown to more than 40 businesses spanning across areas including travel and leisure, health and wellness, music and entertainment, telecoms and media, financial services and space. Branson is also riding the special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, wave with the formation of VG Acquisition Corp. 

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Controversy and financial trouble

Despite Branson's and Bezos' efforts to make suborbital spaceflight available to tourists, the men have not been unscathed from controversy or financial trouble.

Branson has suffered massive financial losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Just a month after the pandemic spread across the United States, Branson revealed he was considering mortgaging his home in the British Virgin Islands and selling up to $504.5 million of his stake in Virgin Galactic. His airline, Virgin Atlantic, later filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and cut thousands of jobs. Another of Branson's airlines, Virgin Australia, entered into an agreement to be acquired by Bain Capital.

As for Bezos, a Change.org petition began circulating immediately after the announcement of his space trip, suggesting he be denied re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. The petition referred to Bezos as "Lex Luthor disguised as the supposed owner of a super successful online retail store" and "an evil overlord hell-bent on global domination." To date, the petition has gained over 20,000 signatures. 

Bezos is also in a legal battle with Michael Sanchez, the brother of his girlfriend Lauren Sanchez. According to the Seattle Times, Sanchez is accused of failing to disclose his ownership of a multimillion-dollar property to avoid paying Bezos and his security consultant, Gavin de Becker, a six-figure judgment from another case. 

Michael unsuccessfully sued Bezos for defamation last February, alleging he and his associates falsely claimed that Sanchez leaked explicit photos of Bezos to the National Enquirer. A January 2019 article by the tabloid revealed an affair between Bezos and his sister Lauren. During that same period, Bezos and his now ex-wife McKenzie announced they would be divorcing after 25 years of marriage.

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Net worth

Ahead of Virgin Galactic's launch, Branson's fortune stands at $6 billion, according to real-time net worth tracking by Forbes as of Friday. After handing over the reigns to Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy on Monday, Bezos' real-time net worth now stands at $212.2 billion.

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