Jeff Bezos 'having a dig' at Richard Branson says expert

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Sir Richard Branson’s voyage to the edge of space on July 11 was a cause for celebration at the Virgin Galactic HQ. After spending millions of dollars and 17 years of hard work, the Virgin founder and a crew of three flight specialists flew a spacecraft into suborbital space. Just before the launch, the multibillionaire told the world “space belongs to all of us”, highlighting his wish to make spaceflight accessible to all.

Sir Richard, 72, is now being chased by Amazon founder and one of the richest people on the planet, Jeff Bezos.

On July 20 – the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing – Mr Bezos’s company, Blue Origin, will launch its own inaugural flight off-planet.

Both space tourism companies are operating under the premise of affordable spaceflight for all – a premise some experts believe is likely unattainable.

According to Dr Ian Whittaker, a Senior Lecturer in Physics at Nottingham Trent University, the intricacies and costs involved in suborbital spaceflight will make such lofty dreams impossible for most.

The expert told Express.co.uk: “So to me, the Blue Origin flight is a little less of an ego mission than Virgin Galactic was as this has been planned for a while now, rather than Branson just trying to one-up others.

“The positive aspect of these flights is that it does generate interest in space science and exploration.

“Will it ever lead to the general public going into space though? Pretty unlikely as far as I can see.”

With a backlog of more than 600 customers willing to pay the steep price for a four-minute joyride into space, punters have already forked out hundreds of thousands for the privilege.

Past reports suggest tickets for Virgin Galactic’s service sold for an astronomical cost of $250,000 a seat – and when the company resumes sales later this year, the cost is expected to grow even higher.

To put this into perspective, ONS figures show the average household income in the UK last year was about £29,900.

Even when you account for the chaos caused by the Covid pandemic, it is clear spaceflight is very much a rich man’s club – but will it remain that way?

Going into space may seem easy at first: Build a rocket, point it upwards and set it off.

But doing so requires a lot of energy, especially if you want your spacecraft to reach orbital velocity.

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin will not do so, instead of launching to altitudes just above 50 and 62 miles, respectively.

On these flights, space tourists only get to experience a few minutes of weightlessness, although that is enough to qualify as an astronaut.

Dr Whittaker said: “Until some new form of low cost, environmentally friendly thrust mechanism is developed it just is not going to happen large scale.

“Which of course brings us to Blue Origin, I believe they are using liquid hydrogen as fuel which has zero carbon emissions (which is great), as with all space missions of any sort though it is how that liquid hydrogen is produced, if fossil fuels were used to power the production of it then it really is no better.

“Plus you have transportation costs of moving rockets and materials around.”

In the post-launch jubilations that took over the Virgin Galactic team on July 11, Michael Colglazier, Chief Executive Officer of Virgin Galactic, said the company has achieved a “historic moment” for commercial spaceflight.

In his estimate, each consecutive launch will pave the way for a new generation of astronauts and help “open the door for greater access to space – so it can be for the many and not just for the few”.

But Dr Whittaker thinks there are two major obstacles in the way that will put a dent in this dream.

He said: “The first is the energy budget, as I say it is really high, that means you can only take a few people at a time, so the fuel cost per person will never be affordable on an ‘average’ wage.

“The second reason is that there will be lots of people willing to pay the ridiculously high prices so why would any company lower them?”

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have made very big promises about the future of affordable spaceflight and it is easy to get swept up in the hype.

There are some who believe it is a matter of time before the astronomical costs start to drop to more accessible levels.

Ann Kim, managing director of frontier tech at Silicon Valley Bank, argued in 2019: “The price point is high, but that’s just like any other early adopter. It will come down.”

For the time being, Sir Richard, Mr Bezos and their hand-picked guests are the only members of a very elusive club of space-faring billionaires.

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