TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, New Mexico — British billionaire Richard Branson plans to beat fellow billionaire and rival Jeff Bezos to space. Branson’s company, Virgin Galactic, made a surprise announcement Thursday that he will attempt to fly in Virgin’s rocket-powered plan on July 11 from southern New Mexico — nine days before Bezos’s planned July 20th launch from Van Horn in west Texas.
The announcement puts Branson, rather than Bezos, in position to become the first billionaire to travel to space aboard a spacecraft he helped fund.
Virgin Galactic had planned to start flying customers years ago, but its development program was set back by several mishaps, including a 2014 test fight accident that resulted in the death of a co-pilot.
But in interviews, Branson has frequently said he’s not interested in “racing” to space.
“People have turned it into a race,” he told CNN during a recent interview. “It would be very dangerous to say turn it into a race. And the moment we have every boxed ticked, I will go up and then we will invite some of the people who have signed up to go with us — but we honestly don’t see it as a race.”
Since the early 2000s, Branson and Bezos have been vying to develop, test and launch suborbital rockets that can take wealthy thrillseekers on brief, 2,300-mile-per-hour rides a few dozen miles above Earth. And their efforts have long been framed as a “billionaire space race.”
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s name is also often thrown around in the “space race” game, but the rockets SpaceX builds are far more powerful than the suborbital tourism rockets built by Branson and Bezos, and Musk has said little about his personal space ambitions beyond that he’d “like to die on Mars — just not on impact.”