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Sir Richard Branson enters the billionaire space race

June 22, 2021, 3:00 PM UTC

A burst of innovation after World War II and some good old Cold War competition led to the first space race between the Soviet Union and the United States, a 36-year battle between two global titans that led to the launch of numerous satellites, the first man on the moon, and an eventual collaboration on the International Space Station. 

Now, after a crippling pandemic that shocked the global economy into a 15-month standstill, another space race has emerged—this time between titans of the plutocratic sort. The world’s billionaires—specifically Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Sir Richard Branson—are looking toward the sky, and they’re in a mad dash to get there first. 

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has already launched 22 cargo resupply missions to the space station. He says he’s determined to land humans on Mars by 2026. His philosophy, pessimistic as it is, is that climate change will ravage the Earth and the only way to save humanity is to launch us all into space. 

Amazon billionaire, and the richest man on the planet, Jeff Bezos, also has plans with his company Blue Origin. He doesn’t think we should give up on our planet just yet. Instead, he says, we should focus on launching our pollutants into space, the trash goes to the moon while the humans stay here. 

Bezos, who plans to officially step down as Amazon CEO in July, announced that he would be going to space himself (for all of 11 minutes) along with his brother and the winner of an online auction. The trip is scheduled for July 20 on his space tourism rocket, New Shepard. 

But Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group and Virgin Galactic, has also entered the race. His approach, however, is less about saving the planet and more about having a good time in space. 

Branson told Fortune that, like Bezos, he may launch into space himself in a few weeks, if the results from the most recent flight by Virgin Galactic are to his liking. “I’ve waited since the moon landing to go to space, and I’m itching to go,” he said.

Branson added that he’s not ready to announce any particular date for his launch just yet, and that he’s unlikely to beat Bezos to it (though some speculate that he will launch on July 4), but either way he said he’ll have the most fun in space, and that he’ll certainly be the first tech giant to have a party up there. 

Another company in Branson’s portfolio, Virgin Orbit, which provides launch solutions for small satellites, will also launch into space at the end of June to deliver satellites for the U.S. Department of Defense Space Test Program, SatRevolution, and the Royal Netherlands Air Force.

But these projects aren’t just billionaires looking to escape what they see as a dying planet, and they are certainly not just vanity projects for men with too much money—they also mean big business. In April, SpaceX won a $2.9 billion NASA contract to build a moon lander, beating out Blue Origin. Bezos did not let the fight go uncontested, he filed a 50-page challenge to the deal with the federal Government Accountability Office. Virgin Orbit currently has a $35 million three-launch deal with the U.S. Space Force.

And so the race continues. 

“There will be other rivals to what we’re doing, and they’ll be doing things slightly differently than we’re doing it, and we’ll be doing it slightly differently to them,” says Branson. “The people in the world, I think, will benefit from that.”

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