Of the many space milestones slated for the upcoming days, months, and years, the most confounding has to be the race between Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson to be the first billionaire to reach space.
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has announced that he will go to space on July 11, nine days before Jeff Bezos does the same on a Blue Origin New Shepard spacecraft, a post on Virgin Galactic's website revealed.
Branson will be the first space billionaire by nine days
This is how the billionaire space race timeline goes: on June 7, Jeff Bezos announced he would go to space in the first crewed mission of company Blue Origin, with the launch date set for July 20.
Shortly afterward, rumors emerged that Richard Branson would move his own spaceflight on a Virgin Galactic VSS Unity forward in order to beat Bezos to suborbital space.
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 spaceflight https://t.co/x0ksfnuEQ3 #Unity22 pic.twitter.com/GWskcMSXyA— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) July 1, 2021
On July 2, those rumors were confirmed when Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic wrote that the company founder would go to space on July 11 as a mission specialist in order to evaluate the customer experience aboard his company's suborbital spacecraft.
That launch will be Virgin Galactic's first fully crewed mission, following the successful crewed test flight of its VSS Unity spacecraft in May.
Billionaire space race met by internet backlash
Though the crewed Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin missions will undeniably constitute a monumental achievement for each of the founders' respective companies, many online commenters seem to be of the mind that space can keep both of them.
The public mood following Bezos' announcement was seemingly captured by a tongue-in-cheek online petition calling for Bezos to be denied reentry after traveling to space.
Many commenters online also pointed to the fact that only last year, Branson asked the UK government for a £500m taxpayer bailout for his Virgin Atlantic airline due to the pandemic, and now he's heading to space on a mission that will cost millions.
Others pointed out that Branson and Bezos could better use their wealth to end world hunger.
Is space exploration worth the expenditure?
The Bezos-Branson billionaire space race highlights an important question about the funding required to go to space. Is the huge amount of money needed for space travel worth it?
As iconic science popularizer Carl Sagan once pointed out, the argument that governments (or individuals, in this case) should forfeit space exploration in favor of ending world hunger is an excluded middle argument as there is enough wealth on Earth for humans to travel to Mars and to end world hunger.
Space exploration can also bring massive wealth to Earth via off-world mining, and technologies used for space invariably end up helping humanity on Earth. One could also argue that space tourism — including Orbital Assembly's proposed space hotel — could stimulate the economy and provide jobs on Earth.
Still, the billionaire space race understandably leaves a bad taste for many at a time of global crisis, due to its decadent end goal of space tourism for the world's wealthiest — tickets on a Virgin Galactic spaceflight are projected to cost between $200,000 and $250,000.
Other upcoming space firsts
While we'll be watching with a keen eye as Branson and Bezos launch to suborbital space — their missions won't go as far as SpaceX's crewed orbital launches — there are other upcoming space milestones in the coming months and years that are likely to be met with a more positive public reaction.
The first crewed launch to Mars, for example, will be a monumental achievement and one that will take a great deal more engineering prowess than suborbital spaceflight.