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Billionaires, livestreams and Stephen Colbert: Welcome to a new era of space flight

Upcoming launches that will take Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos to space are bringing a new visibility to space travel at a time when the industry is booming.

A new kind of space race is set to begin this weekend.

British entrepreneur and Virgin group founder Richard Branson will attempt to fly to space Sunday aboard his company's rocket-powered vehicle. It would mark the culmination of 17 years of work by his space tourism firm, Virgin Galactic.

And, if successful, he would beat fellow billionaire, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to the milestone by a cool nine days.

The launches so close to each other add drama to what some see as a race to space between the two billionaires, even as Branson, 70, has downplayed any rivalry.

“I know nobody will believe me when I say it but honestly there’s isn’t” a competition, he said in a recent interview on NBC's “TODAY” show.

The launch Sunday will be Virgin Galactic's first fully crewed flight of its SpaceShipTwo Unity craft, with Branson, two pilots and three mission specialists, all employees of Virgin Galactic. Weather permitting, the test flight will happen before Bezos is scheduled to launch on the first operational flight of a rocket and capsule developed by his private space company, Blue Origin.

Rivalry or not, the upcoming flights represent milestones for both private space companies and the burgeoning commercial spaceflight industry, which until now has been dominated by fellow entrepreneur Elon Musk and his company, SpaceX. By putting their own lives on the line, Branson and Bezos are providing the ultimate proving ground to demonstrate the safety of their vehicles and the readiness of the nascent space tourism industry.

The Virgin Galactic Unity22 crew Dave Mackay, chief pilot; Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer; Beth Moses, chief astronaut instructor; Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic; Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations; and Michael Masucci, pilot.Virgin Galactic

"We're at an inflection point in the space tourism business," Greg Autry, a space policy expert at Arizona State University, said. "There's a lot of investment going on, there's clearly interest because these companies have sold tickets and we have actual booked flights. What Branson and Bezos are doing is making this very interesting."

Spaceflight, once an international spectacle during the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union, slowed down significantly after the retirement of NASA's space shuttle program. For nearly a decade, NASA was forced to purchase rides to space aboard Russian rockets and the U.S entered a long drought during which there were no astronauts launching from American soil. It was against this backdrop that the private space industry got its slow start.

Things ramped up considerably in recent years, with SpaceX leading the way. Musk's company began by flying uncrewed cargo flights to the International Space Station. Then last year, SpaceX ferried Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the orbiting lab, marking the first time NASA astronauts launched into space aboard a commercially built spacecraft and rocket.

Shortly after, SpaceX announced plans to conduct an orbital tourism flight with paying customers.

What has emerged is a new era of spaceflight, in which launches — be they orbital or suborbital — are no longer solely the realm of countries and their space agencies.

Now, Branson and Bezos promise an additional element — the spectacle of two billionaires strapping themselves in for a ride.

Both the Virgin Galactic and the Blue Origin missions are suborbital flights, which means they will fly to the edge of space. Unlike orbital expeditions, the vehicles won't actually circle the planet, but at an altitude of more than 50 miles, passengers will experience a few minutes of weightlessness and be able to see the curvature of Earth before landing.

Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, inspects New Shepard’s West Texas launch facility before the rocket’s maiden voyage.Blue Origin

But there are some differences between the flights, and Blue Origin pointed to them in a tweet on Friday that stoked the budding rivalry a bit more.

The edge of space is often marked by what's known as the Kármán line, at an altitude of 62 miles. Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket is designed to fly above the Karman line, whereas Virgin Galactic's craft has reached an altitude of roughly 55 miles in previous test flights.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the United States Air Force recognize the boundary to space at 50 miles, meaning Virgin Galactic passengers will qualify to receive commercial astronaut wings, but Blue Origin has seized on the altitude discrepancy to discredit any new milestone set by Branson.

"From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name For 96% of the world’s population, space begins 100 km up at the internationally recognized Kármán line," Blue Origin officials tweeted on Friday.

Branson's flight, from Spaceport America in the New Mexico desert, is scheduled to take place early Sunday but is contingent on clear weather. A livestream of the event, hosted by the comedian Stephen Colbert, will begin at 9 a.m. ET and can be viewed on Virgin Galactic's Twitter, YouTube and Facebook channels.

Virgin Galactic's Unity space plane takes off on a conventional runway while attached to a carrier ship known as WhiteKnightTwo. At an altitude of 50,000 feet, the Unity craft will be released and its rocket-powered engine will ignite, taking it to the edge of space.

This flight profile differs from Bezos' planned expedition aboard Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket, which launches vertically from a secluded site in the Texas desert, southeast of El Paso. The experiences, however, are expected to be very similar.

Last month, Virgin Galactic obtained approval from the FAA to start launching customers into space from Spaceport America. Sunday's joyride, however, is still considered a test flight and the company said it will likely conduct two additional tests before the inaugural flights with paying customers in 2022.

Virgin Galactic has said tickets to space will likely cost more than $250,000 each, but final pricing has not yet been announced.

While these suborbital joyrides carry a hefty price tag, they could open up access to space and spur innovations in the field, Autry said. Competition among companies such as Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX may also eventually drive down the cost of flying to space.

"It's not just about egos," he said. "Whenever you're breaking into new territory — whether it's with electricity, airplanes or rockets — it often takes radical entrepreneurs to move the human experience to the next level."

Beyond tourism, increased access to space would offer valuable opportunities for researchers. Scientists and students have already flown experiments aboard Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX flights, said retired NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, who is now a professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University.

"That would have been unheard of before," said Massimino, who flew aboard two space shuttle missions and logged more than 570 hours in orbit during his NASA career. "All of this is really signaling a new phase in spaceflight and space exploration. This is just the beginning."

And while there are risks with any spaceflight, whether orbital or suborbital, Massimino said there's also the potential for big rewards for Branson, Bezos and their fellow passengers.

"There's something so special about being up there and seeing our home," he said. "I think our planet was meant to be seen from space, where you can really take in its beauty. They'll come away with a different perspective on things."