Richard Branson to fly with Virgin Galactic days before Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin launch

Blue Origin recently added Wally Funk to New Shepard flight

FILE - In this Monday, Oct. 28, 2019 file photo, Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, poses for a photo outside the New York Stock Exchange as fireworks are exploded before his company's IPO. In 2020, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said space is currently a $400 billion market, including satellites. Opening up spaceflight to paying customers, he said, could expand the market to $1 trillion. (AP Photo/Richard Drew) (Richard Drew, Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Two billionaires plan to both take their first spaceflights within days of each other on their respective company’s spacecraft fueling an ongoing competition.

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos previously announced plans to launch with his space company, Blue Origin, on the reusable New Shepard rocket from West Texas. That flight will be the company’s first crewed launch and the passengers include the winning bidder of an auction who paid $28 million for a seat, Bezos’ brother Mark and the most recent crew member addition, aviation legend Wally Funk. That flight is scheduled for July 20 from Blue Origin’s launchpad in West Texas.

Sir Richard Branson’s private spaceflight company, Virgin Galactic, announced Thursday he will fly on SpaceShipTwo as soon as July 11. Two pilots and four mission specialists, including Branson, will be on board that flight. The other mission specialists include Beth Moses, Colin Bennett, Sirisha Bandla, all of whom work at Virgin Galactic.

The announcement of Branson’s first spaceflight came hours after Blue Origin announced that Funk would be an additional passenger on New Shepard’s first crewed flight.

Funk, now 82 years old, was among a group of 13 women pilots in the 1960s who partook in a set of physical and psychological tests to determine if women could be astronauts. They were known as the First Lady Astronaut Trainees and later dubbed the Mercury 13. While the women proved they could withstand the same tests the Mercury 7 astronauts did, not a single member of the all-female group ever achieved spaceflight.

In this undated image from video provided by Blue Origin on Thursday, July 1, 2021, Mercury 13 astronaut trainee Wally Funk, right, meets with Jeff Bezos. On Thursday, Blue Origin announced the early female aerospace pioneer will be aboard the companys July 20 launch from West Texas, flying as an honored guest. (Blue Origin via AP) (Blue Origin)

According to Sue Nelson, the author of “Wally Funk’s Race For Space,” Funk thought she would finally achieve active spaceflight through Virgin Galactic. She previously purchased a ticket to fly on SpaceShipTwo but has waited for years for the company to be ready to fly paying customers. Then Bezos offered to take her up in New Shepard, for free.

SpaceShipTwo lifts off with an assist from a custom-built plane from the company’s facility in New Mexico and is carried to altitude before it separates and fires up the engineers for a brief spaceflight. The crew onboard will use the zero-gravity time to conduct research, including an experiment from the University of Florida.

Virgin Galactic also plans to live stream the liftoff and the views from the cabin for the first time. Blue Origin will also live stream its New Shepard launch on July 20.

Launch dates are always subject to change due to weather or technical issues. It is likely one spaceflight or both could be delayed so it remains to be determined who will fly first.

Virgin Galactic said in a news release it plans at least two more test flights before it starts flying paying customers next year. Blue Origin has also yet to announce pricing for paying customers or when it will start flying them regularly.