Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson took trips to space in the same number of weeks. One would imagine the flights to be pretty similar. But from the vehicles down to the guests who came along, the two visits couldn’t have been more different.
If they gave out a ribbon for being the first billionaire to fly really, really high in the sky, Richard Branson would get it. To be fair, his Virgin Galactic spaceplane technically held the crew in space for a while. But in contrast to the Blue Origin rocket, the VSS Unity was not designed to go beyond the true barrier of the atmosphere. Instead, the suborbital ship was brought up to altitude by a larger plane. And after firing its own rockets, the plane carrying Branson made a winged descent to a runway.
Nine days after Branson’s flight, Jeff Bezos put a cowboy hat on and strapped himself into a more traditional rocket. Blue Origin’s New Shepard was also designed as a suborbital vehicle, but the vertical launch resembled more traditional space flight. On top of that, Bezos and his crew reached a peak altitude of 66 miles above sea level. That’s four miles beyond the Kármán Line, which sits at 62 miles up, and is frequently used as the defining line between atmosphere and space.
After reaching space, the New Shepard began its descent. The capsule was carried to the ground by a parachute and was aided by small rockets to lighten the load in the final stages.
The Virgin Galactic flight reached a 53.5-mile altitude, not quite past the true barrier. And if the height difference isn’t enough, it’s worth mentioning that the flights had entirely different occupants.
Jeff Bezos Rode in an Autonomous Rocket, While Branson was Piloted Manually
The Blue Origin New Shepard was designed to be operated autonomously. This is a luxury afforded by the nature of its vertical takeoff and landing. There’s nothing to be done inside the rocket. The ship blasted off with pre-programmed navigation while the occupants sat back and enjoyed the flight.
On the other hand, Richard Branson’s space plane has a lot more going on. Not only does the mothership need to be piloted expertly up to the proper altitude, but it also needs pilots to operate the secondary stage, which sees the actual spacecraft detach and set off on its own.
As a result, Bezos was able to bring inexperienced guests along. Branson, however, was accompanied by two trained pilots and several employees familiar with the craft.
Finally, perhaps the biggest difference comes in what the two companies seek to do. Virgin Galactic has put its emphasis on space tourism, which will be lucrative in its own right. Blue Origin, on the other hand, will entertain tourism. But beyond that, they have ambitions of earning government contracts like their established competitor SpaceX. They quite literally want to take Blue Origin to the moon.