The space race between Branson and Bezos is about business and branding

The race between Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic and Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosBezos donates 0M to Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum Branson: I’d be delighted to go to Bezos space launch if invited FAA approves Blue Origin launch with Bezos, others aboard MORE of Blue Origin for which billionaire will be the first to fly into space on his own rocket has certainly captured the public imagination. If schedules hold up. Branson will be the first at the head on a six-person crew on July 11. Bezos will follow on July 20 with a crew that includes his brother, someone who paid $28 million to charity for a seat, and “Mercury 13” pilot Wally Funk.

Both the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo and the Blue Origin New Shepard will take their crews on brief, suborbital jaunts. In the meantime, SpaceX’s Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskBranson: I’d be delighted to go to Bezos space launch if invited Kaseya hack proves we need better cyber metrics FAA approves Blue Origin launch with Bezos, others aboard MORE is watching this space race between two of his business rivals with what must be amusement. His rockets go into orbit.

Is the “space race” between Branson and Bezos a little more than two wealthy boys competing for who has the best rocket ship? Certainly, bragging rights are a part of the motivation. However, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are also engaged in the serious task of starting a suborbital tourism business. The narrative that the two upcoming flights constitute a “race” actually benefits both space entrepreneurs.

Both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have been trying to start a suborbital tourism business for years, the former since 2004. The two upcoming flights will be a public display that, if you have enough money, you too can fly into space, albeit for a few minutes. How many people will be willing to pony up and whether they will be numerous enough to support two suborbital tourism companies is anyone’s guess.

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin will not just consist of billionaires selling joy rides to millionaires. A market exists for SpaceShipTwo and New Shepard flying science experiments. Sirisha Bandla, the vice president of Government Affairs and Research Operations at Virgin Galactic, will fly with Branson and will evaluate the human-tended research experience during the flight.

Bezos is using the first crewed flight of the New Shepard as an opportunity to rebrand himself. He is most famous for founding, the largest online retail outlet on the planet. Amazon has been a boon for customers by making the retail experience simple and convenient. Bezos has transformed the retail industry and has become fabulously wealthy doing so. He has also been slammed by some as a monopolist who treats some of his employees like Roman galley slaves. According to a recent story in the New York Post, some have compared Bezos to a Bond villain.

Bezos has started to rebrand his image. He has stepped down as CEO of Amazon, presumably to devote his full attention to Blue Origin. Bezos knows from the example of his main rival, Elon Musk, that billionaires who build and fly rocket ships are considered kind of cool.

Next, Bezos invited a woman named Wally Funk to fly with him on the New Shepard when it takes off on July 20. Sixty years ago, Funk was part of a group of female pilots loosely referred to as the “Mercury 13.” The women pilots were subjected to the same kind of testing that male NASA astronauts underwent in the early 1960s. Some of them passed with scores that exceeded those of the male astronauts.

An urban legend has arisen about the Mercury 13 female astronauts being cruelly denied space flights they were clearly qualified for out of misogynism at NASA. In fact, as retired space journalist James Oberg pointed out, such was never the case. NASA at the time required that its astronauts be test pilots with experience in supersonic aircraft, which none of the Mercury 13 were.

Nevertheless, the narrative is that Funk, at the age of 82, is finally getting the space flight she was “denied” so long ago, thanks to the beneficence of Bezos. Bezos, a capitalist who is seen by some as an exploiter, is now a space entrepreneur, soon to be an astronaut and a champion of women.

Musk may have the last laugh. From the private orbital tourism business to the Starship now undergoing testing in Boca Chica, Texas, SpaceX is far ahead of anything Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin hope to accomplish. The next Americans to land on the moon will likely ride to the lunar surface on a SpaceX rocket. Indeed, for now, Bezos and Branson are fighting for second place in the great commercial space race.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and, most recently, “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times and the Washington Post, among other venues.

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