AFP, published on Friday 09 July 2021 at 08:11
Two ships, two companies, but one goal for billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson: to finally cross the frontier of space themselves. After having each founded their own space company in the early 2000s, the two men are now on the verge of taking off, only a few days apart.
Both a staggering chance of the development schedule, and an emblematic reflection of the fierce competition between them, these two flights also mark a turning point for the nascent space tourism industry.
Because if the two bosses are among the first passengers of Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, their goal is, in fine, to allow hundreds of (rich) travelers to go and admire with their own eyes, for a few minutes, the curvature. of the earth.
They will not be the first billionaires to go to space: the American of Hungarian origin Charles Simonyi, then the Canadian founder of Cirque du Soleil Guy Laliberté, had spent several days aboard the International Space Station in 2007 and 2009, but had then made the trip aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket.
MM. Bezos and Branson will therefore be the first to fly in ships developed by companies they themselves have created.
“It’s just an incredible and wonderful coincidence that we were going there the same month,” the Briton told the Washington Post, assuring that the last-minute announcement of his flight date, July 11, did not was “really not” programmed to beat the founder of Amazon, who is to take him on the 20th.
– “Become an astronaut” –
The first flight will therefore be that of Virgin Galactic, Sunday from New Mexico.
The scheduled take-off time has not yet been communicated, but the company said that a live video broadcast would take place from 7:00 a.m. local time (3:00 p.m. in France).
A carrier plane will take off from a classic runway, then drop at altitude the spacecraft hanging under it, the model of which is called SpaceShipTwo, and the particular example used on Sunday is called VSS Unity.
The two pilots aboard the spacecraft will then ignite its engine for a supersonic ascent, to exceed 80 km in altitude – the height set in the United States for the frontier of space. The passengers, Richard Branson and three other Virgin Galactic employees, will then be able to detach and float in zero gravity for a few minutes.
The ship will then descend again while hovering.
The role of the founder of the Virgin group? Test and evaluate the experience that future customers will have, a priori from 2022.
About 600 people have already paid for their tickets – between $ 200,000 and $ 250,000.
“When I return, I will announce something very exciting to allow more people to become astronauts,” he promised.
– Minimum training –
The second space trip will be made by Blue Origin on July 20, the anniversary of the first steps on the Moon.
The rocket, named New Shepard in honor of the first American to reach space, Alan Shepard, will take off vertically from West Texas. The capsule will separate at about 75 km in height, continuing its trajectory until exceeding 100 km in altitude – the Karman line, which marks the beginning of space according to the international convention.
By comparison, airliners generally fly at a height of about 10 km.
After a few minutes, the capsule will begin a free fall to return to Earth, slowed down by three large parachutes and then retro rockets.
On board, Jeff Bezos will be joined by his brother, Mark, 82-year-old former pilot Wally Funk and the mysterious winner of an auction, whose name has not yet been revealed but who has paid off. $ 28 million to participate.
This will be the first manned flight of this rocket (while VSS Unity has already carried pilots, and even a passenger).
Unlike a big rival, SpaceX, which plans much more ambitious multi-day trips for its own space tourists, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin’s so-called suborbital flights require minimal training.
But after being heralded as imminent for years, the advent of space tourism remains suspended on the full success of these tests.
In 2014, a Virgin Galactic spacecraft crash caused the death of a pilot, significantly delaying the program. And another dramatic event of this kind is not allowed.