Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic (SPCE) have downplayed the competition against each other, but their rivalry has turned into an all-out battle of billionaire egos. SPCE stock fell.
The space race escalated Thursday when Blue Origin announced that it would take Wally Funk, a “Mercury 13” pilot, on its July 20 flight along with Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon (AMZN), and his brother.
A mystery auction winner who paid $28 million for a ticket will also join the crew of the New Shepard rocket.
Funk has waited 60 years to get to space. She was part of the Women in Space Program, nicknamed “Mercury 13,” a privately funded venture in the 1960s that was canceled before any of the female astronauts could reach space.
The announcement was a positive step in righting a wrong after Funk was denied joining a NASA astronaut program three times. But it was also a dig at Virgin Galactic. Funk spent $200,000 on a ticket for a Virgin Galactic flight back in 2010.
Funk’s invite to join Bezos’ first flight is just the latest round of drama between the space billionaires, who each plan to reach space soon.
Virgin Galactic has maintained that it’s not in a contest with other commercial space companies and is on its own timeline, with a focus on safety.
“When the engineers tell me I can go to space, I will go to space,” Branson said in a CNBC interview Wednesday.
But when asked if he would beat Jeff Bezos into space, Branson snarkily said “Jeff who?”
Branson leads in one key area. On July 25, Virgin Galactic beat Blue Origin in receiving FAA approval to fly passengers, sending SPCE stock up 39%. Blue Origin has not yet received approval ahead of its July 20 flight.
Virgin Galactic shares fell 5% to 43.75 on the stock market today. SPCE stock has plunged more than 20% so far this week but remains above its 50- and 200-day lines, according to MarketSmith chart analysis. Among other space stocks, Astra (ASTR) rose 8% in its debut after closing a blank-check merger. Rocket and satellite maker Boeing (BA), whose venture capital arm HorizonX has a $20 million minority stake in Virgin Galactic, dipped 0.3%.
FAA approval is a major hurdle that needs to be cleared in reaching space first. Virgin Galactic is considering launching Branson over the July Fourth weekend, an anonymous source told the blog Parabolicarc.com, and it now has at least the regulatory means to do so.
Virgin Galactic planned to fly founder Branson into space for his 70th birthday last year. But the coronavirus pandemic and technical issues delayed the flight. The company then outlined a step-by-step process for launching another test flight, Branson’s flight and then a research flight with the Italian Air Force.
But the schedule was thrown into disarray when Bezos announced on Instagram last month that he will be on the first crewed flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket.
Branson tweeted his congratulations to Bezos and Blue Origin, adding a cryptic note to “watch this space.”
Follow Gillian Rich on Twitter for space news and more.
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