The well-known entrepreneurs, billionaires and business tycoons Richard Branson -creator of the Virgin empire- and Jeff Bezos -founder of the giant Amazon- are vying for the final victory in the race to open the doors of suborbital space travel to international tourism.
This is the latest addition to an unacknowledged competition between the United States and China to take astronauts to the moon and another between the same powers to lead the exploration of Mars. The third rivalry in the space field is taking place between two US-based companies, both of which aspire to captain a global market that, in principle, will be for a privileged few. But over a few years, studies indicate that it will earn its promoters many billions of euros.
It is a commercial scramble to take tourists of any nationality to the edge of space and back to Earth without orbiting it, giving way to a tourism activity that has been stalled for nearly two decades. The reason for the delay is that the US federal administrations require that projects proposed by the private sector meet the necessary safety conditions to make them a reality.
The leading position is occupied by the eccentric entrepreneur of the Virgin Group, 70-year-old British entrepreneur Richard Branson, with his original flying machine SpaceShipTwo. Second in line is Amazon's influential owner Jeff Bezos, 57, with his New Shepard spacecraft. Warming up much further back and absent from the fray is Elon Musk - who has just turned 50 - with his Starship project.
The competition will take place in a single geographical location, but on several circuits. The machines will set off to the edge of space from the United States and return to their various departure bases. Branson will take off from Spaceport America in the state of New Mexico. He has previously flown with varying success, most recently manned on 22 May. Jeff Bezos' spacecraft from West Texas, having made 14 successful flights, the last one on 14 April with a crew.
Elon Musk maintains his Starship project at his Boca Raton facility, also in the state of Texas. But he is in no hurry to carry out his first manned suborbital round-trip trip for tourism purposes. He is dedicated to cashing in on his lucrative business dealings with NASA, Joe Biden's Department of Defence - before Donald Trump and Barack Obama - and putting commercial and scientific satellites into orbit.
British visionary and all-rounder Richard Branson founded his company Virgin Galactic in 2004 to offer suborbital spaceflight. After more than 15 years of continuous effort and testing, he now has a dual composite propulsion system in place. A mother plane called WhiteKnightTwo takes off and reaches an altitude of just over 15 kilometres, from where it releases the lighter SpaceShipTwo, capable of reaching a ceiling of about 90 kilometres. Once in its vicinity, its passengers can feel the effects of micro-gravity and observe a unique panorama of the Blue Planet and the space around them.
Although Branson had announced that he would travel into space on the fourth manned test flight, he has brought it forward. His change of plans is due to his intention to pull ahead of his rival, Jeff Bezos, whose company Blue Origin had announced on 5 May that the first manned suborbital flight of his New Shepard spacecraft would take place on 20 July.
In the end, the Briton will set off in his panoramic SpaceShipTwo spacecraft - christened Unity 22 - which will take off on 11 July from Spaceport America, which Virgin Galactic has built in the New Mexico desert, 72 kilometres north of the city of Las Cruces. The cost of the facilities has exceeded 200 million dollars and the construction of the infrastructures lasted from April 2006 to August 2019.
At the controls of Unity 22 will be test pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, who a few weeks ago reached nearly 90 kilometres above sea level with the same spacecraft, which the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the US Air Force consider to be the lower limit of outer space. However, the International Astronautical Federation places such a limit at the 100-kilometre line, reasoned and defined decades ago by physicist Theodore von Karman.
The passenger cabin will be occupied by Richard Branson, who will be joined by three Virgin Galactic executives: chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, chief cabin operations engineer Colin Bennett and vice president of government affairs and research operations Sirisha Bandla. Their job will be to identify improvements "to make flying more enjoyable, unforgettable and inspiring for the company's future customers," says Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier.
Branson wants to offer a "unique experience" to those who rely on his model of space travel to see the Earth and the cosmos. But to become a space tourist and wear a space tourist badge, you need a splendid bank account, a medical examination and a few hours of preparation to get used to weightlessness, which is only available to a tiny fraction of the tourists who visit Spain.
If the flight is successful, Virgin Galactic plans to launch two more missions into space in 2021, one of them for the Italian Air Force. Following maintenance checks on the WhiteKnightTwo mother plane and the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, manned flights to carry tourists to the edge of space will begin in 2022.
Competitor company Blue Origin, owned by Amazon's billionaire owner Jeff Bezos, announced on 7 June that its founder and his brother Mark would occupy two of the four seats on the New Shepard capsule mission, scheduled for 20 July, which will fly above 100km altitude. In the weeks that have followed, the other two crew members have been revealed.
The third will be the unknown winner of the public auction for a place on 12 June, in which 7,600 people from more than 150 countries participated. Identified so far as bidder 107, he bid $28 million, to which he must add a 6% commission for the auction house. In total, the trip will bring him close to $29.7 million.
To differentiate itself from the Virgin Galactic mission, Blue Origin announced on 1 July that an 82-year-old female pilot would be the fourth occupant. She is Wally Funk, one of 13 women who in 1959 passed the same tests that NASA's Mercury astronauts underwent. It was a private initiative with official support, but none of the so-called Mercury 13 had the chance to fly into space in the Mercury capsules of the 1960s. Wally Funk will fulfil her dream six decades later thanks to Jeff Bezos.