Bezos vs. Branson: Who is Winning the Race to Space?

SpaceShipTwo dumps water. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Clive Irving, senior consulting editor at Condé Nast Traveler, believes that Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin have zoomed ahead of Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic.

In his story, “Jeff Bezos Will Leave Richard Branson Behind in the Dust,” he writes

Let’s face it: by any rational measure so-called space tourism is a preposterously frivolous idea. Nonetheless, hundreds of thrill-seekers were willing to pay around $2,300 a minute for the ride as soon as Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture was launched in 2005. The first passenger-carrying flight was supposed to happen 10 years ago, in 2007. It slipped to 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013…now…maybe… next year.

But if once it seemed like an idea whose time would never come (leaving aside for the moment the issue of whether it ever should) Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin team—not Branson—now seems more than ever likely to be the first to deliver….

Whereas Branson over the years staged numerous junkets for the media in which success was claimed to be imminent, this April Bezos staged his first preview of the ride on Blue Shepard at the annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs with the warning that, “It’s a mistake to race to a deadline when you’re talking about a flying vehicle, especially one that you’re going to put people on.”

[….]

In less than a year of testing, Bezos has been able to do something that Branson has failed to do in more than a decade: demonstrate proof of concept….

Technically, New Shepard is the precursor of the much more ambitious New Glenn, Blue Origin’s multi-stage rocket program that will launch astronauts and satellites into orbit. (The Virgin Galactic design is an evolutionary dead end – it cannot be scaled up for orbital flight.) As he did with Amazon, Bezos has always had a very clear-eyed idea of what it would cost to get into the business, of the technical challenges, and of the time needed to master them.

It’s a good story that’s worth a read. I did notice one factual error: the tail stall and inverted spin that SpaceShipTwo experienced during a flight test occurred in 2011, not 2013.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, unfortunately Sir Richard should not have allowed the Ansari X-Prize to make his engineering decisions for him. As a result Jeff Bezos, who ignored the Ansari X-Prize for what it was, a cheap PR stunt, now has the lead. It illustrates well the difference between a leader who understand the technical issues and who trust those issues to others.

  • Vladislaw

    Bezos already won it.

  • Jeff2Space

    “Let’s face it: by any rational measure so-called space tourism is a preposterously frivolous idea.” To be fair, you could say the same thing for hyper cars, super yachts, or private jet aircraft. But the fact is that new markets are often started out by targeting the super rich. When air travel was in its infancy, it was exclusively for the rich. In flight, they were served fancy dinners on real china with actual silverware. Air travel was not at all affordable for the middle class back then.

  • Jeff2Space

    Perhaps, but I don’t see Bezos flying with paying customers just yet. The first to fly passengers on a suborbital trajectory will be the “winner” for who did it first. Next, we’ll need to see if either of them is actually profitable. If both are somehow profitable, one of the two will surely be more so than the other. That will be the ultimate winner in a new market space, the one who makes the most profit.

  • Vladislaw

    The post didn’t mention anything about paying customers. A race to space implies whoever gets there first wins. Bezos suborbital capsule has did that, if I am not mistaken.

  • Jacob Samorodin

    I wonder if Bezos dealings with the CIA have led to him copying its culture of secrecy?

  • Jacob Samorodin

    Yea. Does that mean you will be firing off critical emails at space-tourists going up in the near future, condemning them for such expensive dangerous undertakings?

  • windbourne

    other way around.
    Jeff is defining this as need just as much as other ‘frivolous’ items lead to major markets.

  • windbourne

    why does it matter how much profits, as long as they are profitable?
    I can see value in having both running.

  • delphinus100

    It would still be more significant to have someone aboard it though, paying passenger or not…

  • JamesG

    The objective is not to win an entry in the record books. But, Virgin gets to tenuously hold onto that since they did it with an actual person onboard with SpaceShipOne.

    Also while they ofter the same technical objective, flight to “space”, both are, er… will be very different experiences. I see both being able to exist in the same market niche no matter who actually makes the first dollar.

  • JamesG

    Jeff Bezos might not have even been aware of the X-prize at the time.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Believe the author of the news articles is missing the forest for the tree. However well that Bezos and Blue will manage with the sub-orbital New Sheppard. Both Bezos & Branson will be eclipse by the eccentric CTO from Hawthorne next year, if all goes according to plan. Sub-orbital joyrides as offer by Branson & Bezos seems not to be in the same league as a loop around the Moon. Which I expected to happen before the Senatorial project gets off the ground with crew.

  • Richard Malcolm

    I’m not sure the Ansari-X prize was relevant to Bezos at all, was it?

    I also don’t want to knock Bert Rutan’s original engineering achievement, which remains an impressive one. The vehicle might not be scalable, and dumb decisions have been made since to refashion it into an ill-advised suborbital joy ride scheme; but I don’t think that should take away from Rutan’s original achievement, which was of greater value as inspiration than example for the cause or space development.

  • Douglas Messier

    Virgin really had nothing to do with SpaceShipOne. They paid $1 million to slap their logo on the ship for the two Ansari X Prize winning flights. But, it was still a Mojave Aerospace Ventures project, which was a collaboration between Burt Rutan and Paul Allen. Branson signed a licensing agreement with Allen after the flights.

    The article is really about suborbital space tourism. Nobody’s done that yet. SpaceShipOne prize winning flights carried ballast, not passengers.

  • Douglas Messier

    The Julian Guthrie book says Peter Diamandis pitched it to him but Bezos rejected becoming a sponsor. Diamandis pitched it to everyone.

  • Douglas Messier

    The prize was of great inspirational value. It was very unfortunate from a hardware perspective. Julian Guthrie’s book ignores the reality of the second part.

  • redneck

    A supersonic land speed record didn’t destroy the market for golf carts at 19 mph.

  • JamesG

    Thus “tenuous” .

    “The article is really about suborbital space tourism. Nobody’s done that yet. SpaceShipOne prize winning flights carried ballast, not passengers.”

    Coulda, woulda, shoulda….

  • Cliff Shadow

    Branson has already lost, and here’s why: #1 – The Virgin Group, before Galactic, has never created anything from scratch. Just look at Virgin Mobile, Virgin Trains, Virgin Atlantic & Virgin Records. The entire Virgin brand strategy has always been to “Glam-up” an already existing market with already existing technology. This is all that Branson knows and he & the Virgin Brand has no idea on how to really create anything from scratch & how difficult it really is; #2 – When the deal with Rutan was struck, Virgin Galactic only existed as a marketing team. There were no engineers on staff to take a hard technical look at SpaceShip One. Hence the quandary they’re in now. See #1 above; and #3 – Galactic continues to hold onto their “marketeers” despite competitors leaving them in the dust. Just look at their marketing materials and their top staff. If someone has to tell you “how awesome we are”, in reality they’re usually not & probably trying to hide their incompetence.

  • Dave Salt

    I see Branson is still trying to boost the VG image, this time via the BBC…
    http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2017-06-06/bbc-commissions-documentary-about-commercial-space-travel-fronted-by-brian-cox
    …though they claim it will be a ‘balanced’ documentary.

  • Vladislaw

    Space Ship One was not Virgin Galatic that was Paul Allen who funded Scaled Composits to do that … Virgin came after.

  • JamesG

    SS1 was the prototype and operational model for what became SS2 that Virgin bought into.

  • Jeff2Space

    Agreed. Up until the 1970s, very few people could afford “car phones”, even though they’d been featured on TV quite a bit for decades (e.g. Perry Mason in the early 1960s). But, through the 1980s and 1990s, cell phones finally started to become affordable for “average people”. We got our first cell phone in 1994 and we’re far from “rich”. Now “everyone” has a cell phone. This includes a lot of arguably poor people in developing nations that don’t have much in the way of traditional “land lines” outside of major cities.

    So, voice communication technology is another example of the rich buying “frivolous” gadgets that are now considered a necessity by most people. Most employers these days want their employees to have cell phones so they can “call them in” if needed.

  • Jeff2Space

    If you want to argue “firsts” then SpaceShip One arguably got there first. But, while it did have room for passengers, it never flew a single time with a paying customer before becoming a museum piece. So, it ultimately wasn’t a viable commercial space tourism vehicle.

    That’s why I think the goalpost should be which company becomes profitable in the commercial space tourism industry. Otherwise, both Blue and Virgin are just building future museum pieces.

  • Jay

    I found another factual error: In the article – regarding the Blue Origin New Shepard abort testing – Mr Irving states: “The system was successfully demonstrated on the fifth test flight, but not in a way that replicated the moment of greatest danger: an explosion on the launch pad. Instead, the capsule was blown free of the rocket during the ascent.”

    In actuality, Blue Origin tested the pad abort scenario LONG before they tested the Ascent Abort. You can view a video here.

    He states that pad aborts are “the moment of greatest danger”, which I believe is debatable. Blasting yourself free of a vehicle accelerating through the transonic regime is quite possibly more difficult to do, than simply lifting off from a stationary position. At the ground your only real concerns are 1) getting away fast enough and 2) getting far enough away. At transonic or supersonic speeds, separation and flight stability of the aborting craft are additionally a large concern.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The problem was not only that SpaceShipOne was not scalable, but also dangerous to fly. There were many close calls where only pure luck prevented the craft from being lost. It was why it was never flown after it won the prize, Paul Allen was too scared someone would be killed.

  • ThomasLMatula

    He is just behaving like a normal entrepreneur, keeping his product secret until ready for market. You should be glad he shared what he has shared.

  • Vladislaw

    Space Ship One was owned by Paul Allen not Virgin

  • Vladislaw

    Doesn’t matter. The topic brief said VIRGIN .. not Paul Allen and Space Ship One was financed by him not Virgin.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    In my mind. It is more like the difference between a tricycle (Spaceship 2) and a 10-speed road bike (CircumLunar Dragon).

  • duheagle

    Amazon was founded over 20 years ago and has never been particularly secretive. Blue Origin was founded in 2000 and had little or nothing to say about its activities for years. The Amazon-CIA contract was signed in 2013. If anything, Blue has gotten a lot chattier since the CIA deal. You have fatal causality and fact problems with your hypothesis.

    As for the CIA deal itself, the CIA buys a lot of services from corporate America. Amazon is in the web services business – big time. The CIA uses a lot of web services. Their intersection looks closer to being inevitable than anything else.

    The left-wing press was in its usual high-dudgeon mode about the “secret” Amazon-CIA deal at the time it was struck back in 2013. I got 405,000 hits – most of them dating from that time – when I put the search predicate “Jeff Bezos CIA contract” into my favorite search engine. Some “secret.” If I ever have the need to get the word out about something, I’d be delighted to achieve a tenth this level of “secrecy.”

  • publiusr

    Stratolaunch would be a great White Knight 3, Branson could launch a suborbital X-34 type plane, and give Stratolaunch something to do….