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Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk
Joe Skipper | Reuters; Joe Raedle | Getty Images; Paul Hennessy | SOPA Images | Getty Images

2021 has been a whirlwind for private space tourism, with this week especially crucial for the ventures founded by Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson.

While Bezos’ Blue Origin took a step forward in flying people to the edge of space, in what is known as suborbital space tourism, Branson’s Virgin Galactic took a step back – putting the latter company at least a year behind the former in the niche market.

Blue Origin launched its second crewed spaceflight Wednesday – carrying two paying customers, as well as guest William Shatner. A day later, Virgin Galactic announced an unexpected schedule reorganization to spend eight to 10 months improving its vehicles, delaying remaining spaceflight tests and officially confirming it does not expect to begin commercial service before late 2022.

“In our view this equates to lost momentum in the space tourism race given the recent successes had by SpaceX (Private) and Blue Origin (Private),” Truist analyst Michael Ciarmoli wrote in a note to investors Friday.

Today’s reality does not match the perception of the space tourism race presented just a few months ago, when Branson in July flew successfully to space with Virgin Galactic just nine days before Bezos launched with Blue Origin. At the time, the dueling spaceflights made it seem like the companies were neck-and-neck.

Yet, three months later, Blue Origin has flown its second and third customers on its New Shepard rocket, while Virgin Galactic has yet to launch one of the about 600 people who have reservations for tickets on future flights.

The SpaceX difference

The Inspiration4 passengers pose in the crew access arm of Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. From left: Commander Jared Isaacman, medical officer Hayley Arceneaux, pilot Sian Proctor, and mission specialist Chris Sembroski.

Notably, Elon Musk’s SpaceX also launched and returned four non-professional astronauts on the private Inspiration4 mission in September.

But the SpaceX experience is very different compared to flying with Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin.

The SpaceX crew flew many times further to orbit, rather than the edge of space; they spent three days in orbit, rather than just a couple of minutes; and the price of a SpaceX trip is around $200 million (based off the $55 million that NASA is paying per astronaut for missions), vs. $200,000 to $450,000 for a Virgin Galactic ticket.

Blue Origin has declined to disclose how much its passengers are paying for tickets. The only indication of Blue Origin’s pricing structure is a public auction the company held for a seat on its first flight with Bezos, which went for $28 million. Bezos has since said that his company has sold nearly $100 million worth of tickets for New Shepard flights.

Additionally, Inspiration4 mission commander and benefactor Jared Isaacman emphasized to CNBC that his launch with SpaceX was not “a joyride.” The primary aim of the mission was to raise funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and the campaign has exceeded its goal – raising $238.5 million to date, including $125 million from Isaacman.

While Virgin Galactic may be falling behind Blue Origin in the suborbital market, Branson’s company has previously estimated that it sees demand from millions of high net worth individuals for spaceflights – far more than the two companies can supply in the next decade.

That sentiment was shared by some Wall Street analysts Friday who largely stuck by existing estimates for Virgin Galactic’s stock after the company’s delay.

“The company’s competitor, Blue Origin, only expects to conduct seven additional flights (at most 28 humans) between now and 2023, ultimately having a negligible impact on the outstanding customer [total addressable market] for suborbital space tourism,” Canaccord Genuity analyst Austin Moeller said in a note to investors.

Overall, 2021 is the year of private companies launching non-professional astronauts to space, with 16 so far: four with SpaceX, four with Virgin Galactic, and eight with Blue Origin.

It’s also not finished yet, as Blue Origin plans to launch its third crewed New Shepard flight before the end of the year. Additionally, in early 2022, SpaceX is scheduled to launch the Ax-1 mission for Axiom Space, which will carry a retired NASA astronaut and three paying passengers for a stay at the International Space Station – and Axiom has a deal in place for at least three more missions after that.

To learn more about the companies’ different approaches to space tourism, click here.

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