Richard Branson to Beat Jeff Bezos to Space—but Blue Origin CEO Suggests It Won't Count

Richard Branson is set to become the first billionaire in space, beating Jeff Bezos to the title, when he takes his first flight aboard Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity spaceplane in less than two weeks. But Blue Origin's CEO Bob Smith has suggested it won't count as a trip to space.

Branson, the British billionaire and founder of the Virgin Group business empire, announced on Wednesday that he would be part of a crew of six aboard the spaceplane's next test mission, as Virgin Galactic hurries to achieve operational space tourism.

Branson said in a statement that he was "proud and excited" to be going on the flight, adding: "Virgin Galactic still has tests to come, and this is the time for me to assess the astronaut experience."

The mission will mark Virgin Galactic's fourth crewed test flight of the VSS Unity. It is due to take place on July 11.

This means Branson is aiming to fly to space before Jeff Bezos, the billionaire CEO of Amazon, who is due to be launched out of the atmosphere courtesy of his own space tourism company, Blue Origin, on July 20.

But the bragging rights have been contested. Bob Smith, CEO of Blue Origin, told The New York Times: "We wish him [Richard Branson] a great and safe flight, but they're not flying above the Kármán line and it's a very different experience."

The Kármán line is an widely recognized boundary setting out where space begins. It is around 62 miles above mean sea level.

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the world governing body for air sports, for example, uses the Kármán line definition and considers it the boundary separating aeronautics and astronautics.

However, NASA and the U.S. military would disagree. They both consider space to start at 50 miles above the Earth's surface.

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity is expected to fly up to an altitude of more than 50 miles, but not quite reach the Kármán line. Blue Origin's flight, on the other hand, is aiming to nudge over it.

So for U.S. government agencies at least, Virgin Galactic is still due to score a point over Blue Origin in next week's flight in terms of who can blast their founder into space first.

Branson has jokingly alluded to the competition between himself and Bezos before. When CNBC's Kelly Evans asked him in June whether he was "trying to beat Jeff Bezos into space," Branson replied: "Jeff who?"

.@KellyCNBC: Are you trying to beat Jeff Bezos into space?@richardbranson: "Jeff who?"

— Michael Sheetz (@thesheetztweetz) June 30, 2021

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are taking different approaches in how they achieve spaceflight. Blue Origin takes the traditional approach, using a vertically launched single stage rocket.

Virgin Galactic, meanwhile, uses a spaceplane that is carried to a height of around 50,000 feet by a normal plane before being released. A rocket motor then propels the spaceplane the rest of the journey.

jeff bezos blue origin virgin galactic richardbranson
Virgin Group founder Richard Branson pictured on November 13, 2019 in Sydney, Australia (left). Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos pictured in Washington, DC, September 19, 2019. Both billionaires aim to go to space next month. Don Arnold/WireImage / RIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images