Sir Richard Branson, the founder and CEO of Virgin Galactic, announced a surprising plan to travel to space on July 11, beating Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to it.
Virgin Galactic, the space subsidiary of the Virgin Group, has been working on Unity rocket plane in the US for about 20 years now, in a push to fulfill Sir Branson’s long-held dream to touch the space someday and to make way for others to do the same.
This comes after the US Federal Aviation Administration in late June gave Virgin Galactic permission to take paying customers into space after a successful test flight in May.
The announcement has added to the culminating space frenzy kicked off by SpaceX founder and CEO, Elon Musk. Since May last year, when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft leaped on a Falcon 9 rocket from the Launch Complex 39-A at Cape Canaveral in Florida, marking a new era of commercial spaceflight, the billionaires’ race to space has intensified.
The aim has been, among others, to develop commercial spacecraft services that anyone who can afford it would hitch to the edge of the earth or the orbit.
“I truly believe that space belongs to all of us,” Branson said. “I’ve always been a dreamer. My mum taught me to never give up and to reach for the stars. On July 11, it’s time to turn that dream into a reality aboard the next @VirginGalactic,” he said via Twitter.
Sir Branson will be journeying alongside employees of Virgin Galactic, Beth Moses, Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs. Dave Mackay and Michael “Sooch” Masucci will be the two pilots up front.
Last month, Blue Origin, Bezos’ space company, announced the winner of a $28 million auction to ride alongside Bezos on the New Shepard rocket on July 20. Bezos also announced he would be accompanied into space on 20 July by Wally Funk, a female aerospace pioneer, who was denied the chance to be an astronaut in the 1960s due to her gender. The 82-year-old will be the oldest person ever to travel to space.
However, the cost of the trips has varied with each of the space companies. In January, a trio of American real estate investors, a Canadian investor, and a former Israeli Air Force pilot teamed up to pay $55 million each to be part of the first fully private astronaut crew to journey to the International Space Station (ISS), on board SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule early next year.
Virgin Galactic has sold tickets to about 600 passengers at a price between $200,000 and $250,000 each, although the company expects it could increase its prices substantially for the first commercial flights.
Blue Origin said its ticket pricing is yet to be determined, but Bezos expects his company will price flights on New Shepard in comparison to competitors. Analysts expect its flights to cost as much as $500,000 for a brief up and down that includes several minutes of weightlessness.
The reason for the differences in pricing is because the three competitors have developed quite different technologies, offering varying flight altitude. SpaceX offers orbital trips, including to the ISS, reaching an altitude of over 400 kilometers above the earth, while Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin offer suborbital, which reaches an altitude of about 100 kilometers above the earth. Virgin Galactic launches its rocket ship from an aircraft, reaching an altitude of roughly 55 miles (88km). Blue Origin launches its New Shepard rocket from the ground, with its capsule soaring to about 66 miles. The orbit services thus justify the wide pricing gap between SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin.
Despite the cost, the space commercial transport services has been dubbed the fastest-growing part of the luxury market, holding a future multi-billion dollar sector.
CNBC reported on Cowen and UBS recently conducted surveys of high net worth individuals and their interest in suborbital tourism. Cowen’s survey found suborbital flights have a total addressable market of about 2.4 million people among individuals with a net worth of more than $5 million.
UBS surveyed more than 6,000 high net worth individuals specifically on flying with Virgin Galactic. About 20% of those UBS surveyed said they are “likely to purchase a ticket on a spacecraft within 1 year” of the company beginning regular flights. That number increases to between more than 35% “after several years of safe operation,” UBS said.
With the increasing interest in Space travel, a new multi-billion dollar sector has been born. The global space economy is expected to be worth at least $1.1 trillion in 2040, if the current trend is sustained, According to Forbes.