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Branson set to take one giant leap as billionaires compete in new space race

·4-min read

Sir Richard Branson will attempt to become the first billionaire to leave Earth as the mega-rich space race heats up.

The Virgin owner is planning to beat rival billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk to the final frontier on Sunday.

Space tourism has become an obsession of billionaires in recent years with Mr Musk even stating his intention for his company, SpaceX, to build spacecraft which could help humanity colonise Mars.

Here we look at the three contenders:

– Sir Richard Branson

Sir Richard was the first to take steps towards commercial spaceflights, founding Virgin Galactic in 2004, and initially intended to launch a private spacecraft by 2009 before delays scuppered his plans.

He is now hoping to be the first billionaire into space with his flight on July 11 aboard the VSS Unity spacecraft – the first time Virgin Galactic has launched a fully crewed flight to the edge of space.

It comes after a number of setbacks for Virgin Galactic including the death of a pilot aboard the VSS Enterprise during a test flight which broke up and crashed in the Mojave Desert in October 2014.

Sunday’s flight will be the 22nd launch by Virgin Galactic.

Sir Richard announced the flight shortly after Mr Bezos announced his planned launch on June 20, but denied he is trying to beat his fellow billionaire.

There will be two pilots and four mission specialists including Sir Richard aboard the Unity, which will be carried by the twin-fuselage carrier jet VMS Eve to 50,000ft and will then propel itself upwards where the passengers will experience zero gravity.

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Sir Richard got his start in business by using Student, a magazine he founded in 1968, as a springboard to launch a mail-order record company which led him to start Virgin Records, his first major venture.

He used the success of Virgin Records to launch into a number of industries with Virgin branding, including an airline, gyms, publishing and an ill-fated cola brand.

Richard Branson in his Virgin Records days
Richard Branson in his Virgin Records days (PA)

Sir Richard now has a net worth of £4 billion.

– Jeff Bezos

Mr Bezos has always had one eye on space travel.

His company Blue Origin was founded in 2000 and he used a 1982 interview with the Miami Herald to show his interest in humanity leaving Earth.

Blue Origin is slated to launch its reusable New Shepard rocket on July 20 carrying Mr Bezos, his brother Mark, a mystery passenger who paid £20 million at auction, and Wally Funk, a female astronaut trained in 1961 but who never went to space.

She will become the oldest person to reach space if the flight is successful.

The New Shepard has a conventional launch method involving a booster rocket taking off vertically and then separating from the capsule at a suborbital height.

The rocket has no crew and is autonomous, unlike Mr Bezos’ rivals’ spacecraft.

He is the founder and former chief executive of Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer.

He founded Amazon as an online bookstore before branching out into consumer goods in 1998. He is also owner of Blue Origin and the Washington Post.

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His net worth is currently £154 billion.

– Elon Musk

The South African owner of Tesla has become well known for his efforts to ignite space travel.

His greatest contribution so far is the creation of reusable booster rockets through SpaceX.

Mr Musk was the first to announce a fully private spaceflight in February and will attempt the launch in the autumn.

Space tourism is a secondary concern for SpaceX which primarily wants to colonise Mars, with Mr Musk saying he wants to die on the Red Planet.

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft will feature a four-person crew led by Jason Isaacman, the founder of Shift4 Payments, an online payment company.

SCIENCE SpaceX
(PA Graphics)

The Dragon will take off from Nasa’s Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral which SpaceX has been using for launches since 2017.

Mr Musk is best known for being the eccentric chief executive of Tesla, the electric car company, but made his fortune by founding PayPal, the online payment service.

He has become a leading proponent of cryptocurrency, even accepting payment for Tesla cars in Bitcoin for a period earlier this year.

He has a net worth of £129 billion.

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