Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos and Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson have dreamed of going to space since childhood. The billionaires have also been competing to become the first to launch commercial space travel. In July 2021, the two men fulfilled both quests with two separate jaunts to space in their respective company's rockets. The historic flights kicked off a new era of space tourism — for anyone who can afford it.
Branson was the first to lift off aboard the VSS Unity from Virgin Galactic's launch site in New Mexico on July 11, 2021. The billionaire was accompanied by three Virgin Galactic employees and two pilots. At about 50,000 feet, VSS Unity detached from its carrier aircraft, VMS Eve. It then fired its rocket engine and accelerated to the edge of space.
Upon reaching an altitude of 53.5 miles (86.1 kilometers), the spacecraft performed a slow backflip. The elevation was just enough for the team to experience three to four minutes of weightlessness and enjoy spectacular views of the Earth's curvature. The spacecraft then turned around and glided back through Earth's atmosphere. It landed flawlessly at the same New Mexico runway it had taken off from, about an hour before. Branson described his inaugural space journey as "just magical."
Bezos' first trip to space aboard Blue Origin's New Shepard spacecraft — named after America's first astronaut, Alan Shepard — was equally thrilling. The six-story-tall booster rocket carrying the crewed spacecraft blasted off from Blue Origin's launch site in West Texas on July 20, 2021. The date marked the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Bezos was accompanied by his brother, Mark Bezos, 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, and 82-year-old aviation pioneer Wally Funk. The latter two made history as the youngest and oldest humans to fly to space. The autonomous New Shepard spacecraft did not require human pilots.
At about 250,000 feet, the crew capsule separated from its booster and continued its journey to the edge of the atmosphere. At an altitude of about 66 miles (106 kilometers), the excited crew unbuckled their seatbelts and enjoyed a few minutes of microgravity. Videos from inside the ship show the four doing somersaults, tossing candy, and the Bezos brothers joining their palms to display a “HI MOM” message on their hands. The capsule then began to fall and safely landed on Earth with the help of parachutes. The entire flight lasted 10 minutes and 10 seconds. The former CEO of Amazon said, "My expectations were high and they were dramatically exceeded."
Virgin Galactic plans to conduct two more flights from New Mexico before launching customers next year. The company says that it already has more than 600 reservations at $250,000 apiece. Blue Origin has not revealed its price for a ride to space. However, it plans to auction the seats aboard the next two flights scheduled in 2021 to the highest bidders. The proceeds will be donated to charity. Elon Musk has even loftier space tourism plans. In 2022, his company, SpaceX, will transport four passengers to the International Space Station for an astounding $55 million per person!
Resources: Businessinsider.com, Natgeo.com, Space.com