Billionaire space race gets new entrant

Dan Berthiaume
Senior Editor, Technology
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Jeff Bezos is getting upstaged by the colorful founder of the Virgin Group. 

Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson is planning to reach space over a week before Amazon founder Bezos is scheduled to cross the “final frontier.”

Virgin Galactic, the commercial space travel subsidiary of global conglomerate Virgin Group, is opening the flight window for the next rocket-powered test flight of its SpaceShipTwo Unity spacecraft July 11, pending weather and technical checks. The “Unity 22” mission will be the 22nd flight test for Virgin Galactic and the company’s fourth crewed spaceflight. 

Of greater note, the mission will also be the first to carry a full crew of two pilots and four mission specialists in the cabin, including Branson, who will be testing the private astronaut experience. Branson’s fellow billionaire entrepreneur Bezos recently announced his plans to travel to space on the first manned flight launched by Blue Origin, the spaceflight services company he founded, on July 20.

According to Virgin Galactic, its upcoming flight will focus on cabin and customer experience objectives, including evaluating the commercial customer cabin with a full crew, and demonstrating the conditions for conducting human-tended research experiments. For the first time, Virgin Galactic will share a global livestream of the spaceflight on its website, with simulcast on the Virgin Galactic Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook channels.

Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic, told CNBC that the timing of Branson’s first flight to space was not intentionally set to precede Bezos’ debut space trip.

“I truly believe that space belongs to all of us,” Branson said in a posting on the Virgin Galactic website. “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 honored to help validate the journey our future astronauts will undertake and ensure we deliver the unique customer experience people expect from Virgin.”