It's no secret that Richard Branson is a big fan of SpaceX.
And, as a fellow space baron to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, it's hard to blame him — since Musk's aerospace firm is edging closer to attempting its first orbital flight with a fully stacked Starship vehicle — and a launch date fast approaching. This will be a huge step for Musk's ambitions to build, operate, and land a new spaceship on the surface of Mars, putting humans on the Red Planet.
Much testing is needed before the big jump can happen. And, having bested Jeff Bezos in repeatedly contested contracts with NASA to build the Human Landing System for the Artemis program, Musk has assumed a rapidly widening lead ahead of his two space baron rivals, Blue Origin CEO Bezos and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson.
But the second space race isn't only a dramatic struggle of space barons vying for the spotlight. Not necessarily: on Wednesday, April 6, Sir Richard Branson expressed a desire to "go up on one of [Musk's] spaceships," according to an initial report from CNBC.
Musk and Branson are friends, so they may not make dealings in public (that is, Twitter), but this only makes a hidden possibility even more likely: If Musk offers Branson a ride on one of Starship's first orbital flights, the Virgin Galactic founder might become the first billionaire to ride Starship into space — even before Musk himself.
No one is saying this is happening. But the choice seems obvious.
Richard Branson looks to SpaceX after accepting astronaut title from FAA
Less than one year after flying to the edge of space aboard his Virgin Galactic, Branson said he wants to swap flights with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk — the latter of whom also became a board member of Twitter this week — in what appears to be a charismatic declaration of open friendship between two space barons.
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"Hopefully, I'll be able to go up on one of his spaceships one day, and he'll be able to go up on one of ours," said Branson in the CNBC report, referencing the space tourist offerings of Virgin Galactic in exchange for a seat on SpaceX's crew operations.
Branson — a lifelong entrepreneur who's flown around the world in a hot air balloon, launched countless "Virgin" brands — was formerly recognized as an astronaut by the Federal Aviation Administration, for flying to space aboard Virgin Galactic's Unity 22 (along with Sirisha Bandla and Colin Bennett). This recognition came from surpassing the 50-mile altitude threshold that the U.S. has designated the edge of space.
Sir Branson also said he's "good friends" with Musk, and that Musk had already purchased a ticket for a Virgin Galactic flight "a long time ago." Meanwhile, SpaceX launched its first astronauts into orbit back in 2020 — lifting a total of 18 humans into space since then.
Who will be the first to fly on SpaceX's Starship?
This comes as SpaceX inches progressively nearer to launching its first fully stacked Starship, with Booster 7 — an iteration of the bottom half of the stack (so not the Starship as we've seen it) — executing a full cryoproofing on Monday night, according to a NASASpaceflight.com report. Additionally, more Raptor 2 engines were delivered recently, with more slated to arrive in the coming weeks.
While Musk has said that Starship's orbital flight could happen in May of this year, this timeline may have hit a snag. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed an application to expand SpaceX's launch facility in Texas, called Starbase, according to The Verge. This was due in part to Musk's announcement that Starship's first orbital flight could lift off from Cape Canaveral, in Florida, instead of Texas.
Since this seemed to run contrary to SpaceX's application to expand its Texas base, SpaceX will have to offer additional clarification before it can move forward with potential expansions of Starbase in Texas — which include two suborbital launchpads, a landing pad, and two orbital launchpads.
Whether Elon Musk has SpaceX launch the fully stacked Starship into orbit from Texas or Florida, the rapidly accelerating pace of space tourism means that, once Starship finally achieves orbit, it's only a matter of time before a billionaire is given a seat in the first privately owned orbital spaceship. And, given his "good friendship" with Musk, Branson would probably have first dibs over other billionaires (certainly other space barons, like Bezos). Suffice to say that all eyes are on Musk and Starship as Space Race 2.0 carries on. Perhaps most notably of all, Sir Richard Branson's.