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Branson risks being eclipsed by billionaire rivals in the space race

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Astronauts
Astronauts

When Blue Origin, the rocket company owned by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, fired 90-year-old William Shatner into space on Wednesday, it was able to grab the bragging rights and headlines for taking Star Trek’s “Captain Kirk” into orbit.

But it also showed Blue Origin had taken a giant leap ahead of its main space tourism rival, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Blue Origin took Shatner along with two paying customers into space, with tickets rumoured to cost $250,000 apiece.

A day later, Branson’s company said it would be delaying upcoming tests of its VSS Unity space plane until late next year amid a complete refit and upgrade.

Virgin said that recent testing “flagged a possible reduction in the strength margins of certain materials used to modify specific joints” on its Unity space plane, which required further investigation.

That process is expected to push back upcoming test flights and delay its tourism venture, which will cost passengers $450,000 for a ticket, until late in 2022. Shares in Virgin Galactic dropped by 14pc in after hours trading in New York. They are down 55pc from their February peak.

With these delays, space watchers believe Virgin’s ambitions are falling further behind Blue Origin.

Writing on Twitter on Thursday evening, Meagan Crawford, managing partner at venture capital firm Space Fund, said: “Virgin Galactic delays have long been joked about by industry insiders, but this is getting ridiculous. They’re already over a decade late on delivering - are you shooting for two decades?”

On July 11, Branson appeared to have the edge in the space race. His Virgin space plane, which rockets into the upper atmosphere after dropping from under the wings of its mothership craft, reached 50 miles up with the British billionaire on board, beating his rivals by days. Jeff Bezos’s rival flight on his Blue Origin New Shepard craft, a more traditional vertical take-off rocket, flew on July 20.

Since then, however, Branson's space flight dreams have been grounded.

Virgin Mothership Eve carrying Virgin Spaceship Unity - Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic
Virgin Mothership Eve carrying Virgin Spaceship Unity - Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic

First, there have been questions over whether his low-orbit jaunts really count as space flight. Critics have said that its flights do not cross the Karman line, a boundary 62 miles up broadly accepted as the “edge” of space.

Second was a worrying red warning light that appeared during Branson’s flight. Despite lauding the flight as a success, the pilots on the flight were pinged with a warning light as the plane reached its apogee. For one minute and 41 seconds the plane was off course, The New Yorker revealed, which said the warning should have prompted the pilots to abort the mission. This led to a grounding by the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and an investigation. At the time, Virgin said: “Our pilots responded appropriately.”

And despite the FAA agreeing to allow Virgin back into space, there appear to be other problems with its Unity rocket. Testing found that the material its craft is made of is not giving a high enough margin of safety during the huge stress a rocket is put under when it accelerates through the atmosphere. The company said on Thursday it would ground the craft for inspection and enhancement.

Some analysts are giving Virgin an increasingly short shrift. Ronald Epstein, a Bank of America analyst, wrote after news of the FAA investigation emerged: “Point blank, in our view, it is unacceptable to have an event during a flight that, per FAA regulations, is considered a mishap and then claim that the mission was a success”.

It is also not just Amazon’s billionaire founder that Branson has to compete against. Elon Musk’s SpaceX finally got its tourism venture off the ground in September, launching four amateur astronauts on a three day adventure. Space tourism still remains a secondary concern to SpaceX, which has devoted more energy to its satellite launches and exploration efforts. However, it was still able to charge $55m per ticket.

Still, it has not all been smooth flying for Bezos’s Blue Origin. While it has now conducted two tourism flights and has one further flight planned in 2021, it has also faced an FAA probe over safety concerns raised by its staff in an open letter.

Shagun Sachdeva, founder of space consultancy Kosmic Apple, says while Virgin may seem to be behind in the short-term, its decision to take a safety-first approach in enhancing its craft is the right decision.

“Virgin Galactic is taking steps which are critical in terms of safety, and despite the delays in the short term and fall in their stock, this should not affect the long term ambitions of the company,” she says.

Other factors could make more of a difference. Virgin’s flights are longer compared to the 11 minute blast off and return to earth in a crew capsule for Blue Origin passengers. Other passengers, however, may be more discerning and opt for Blue Origin flight which travels further into space.

After sixteen years of efforts, Virgin is within touching distance of making space tourism a reality. But Branson risks seeing his efforts eclipsed by his US rivals at the last minute.