Richard Branson vs. Jeff Bezos: How the two space-bound billionaires stack up

The billionaire space race is heating up again. 

Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson now plans to beat his fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos to space next week on a test spaceflight for the British billionaire’s space tourism company that will launch July 11. That’s more than a week before Bezos plans to complete his own spaceflight, along with his brother and an anonymous auction winner who paid $28 million for their seat on the first passenger flight for Bezos’ rival space company, Blue Origin.

When Bezos, who will step down as Amazon’s CEO on Monday, announced his July 20 spaceflight a month ago, it appeared that he was set to become the first of the group of billionaire private space company founders (a fraternity that also includes Branson and SpaceX’s Elon Musk) to reach suborbital spaceflight on one of their own companies’ rockets. 

(Previous billionaires to reach space include space tourists such as software billionaire Charles Simonyi in 2007 and video game developer Richard Garriott in 2008.)

As such, Branson’s surprise move to schedule his own spaceflight aboard a Virgin Galactic spacecraft just nine days ahead of Bezos’ flight has been viewed as an attempt to one-up his rival space-bound billionaire. However, Branson has downplayed the competitive angle of the space race, telling CNN that Bezos’ plans did not affect his own announcement.

“I think both of us will wish each other well, and it really doesn’t matter whether one of us goes a few days before the other,” Branson said on Friday. He had previously congratulated Bezos on Twitter when the Amazon CEO announced his spaceflight plans in June, though Branson also told his followers at the time to “watch this space.”

Of course, Branson and Bezos are definitely rivals in the sense that Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are both competing to corner the market for suborbital space tourism. 

But, that’s not the only thing the two men have in common. Branson, 70, and Bezos, 57, are both self-made billionaires who built huge companies and massive fortunes that they then put to work funding projects built around their own personal passions for space travel.

With the two billionaires both on the verge of finally achieving their overlapping dreams of reaching space, let’s take a look at how Bezos and Branson stack up against one another:

Self-made billionaires

For both Branson and Bezos, their paths to becoming billionaires started in retail.

Branson dropped out of school in the late 1960s and launched his first business, which was a youth culture magazine called “Student” that later evolved into a successful record selling operation that saw Branson selling mail-order vinyl records through the magazine. In 1971, he opened a brick-and-mortar record store in London called Virgin Records, which grew to become the chain Virgin Megastores, and later added a record label and even the Virgin Atlantic airline, among many other ventures.

Branson sold Virgin Records to EMI (now part of Universal Music Group) in 1992 for $1 billion. Today, he serves as chairman of the Virgin Group, the conglomerate and holding company that owns stakes in a host of Virgin-branded businesses, from Virgin Atlantic and the Virgin Mobile telecom to Virgin Galactic, which Branson took public in 2019 and is now valued at nearly $11 billion. Bloomberg estimates that Virgin Group’s businesses have a combined annual revenue of around $22 billion.

Meanwhile, Bezos went from Princeton University to a career on Wall Street with hedge fund D.E. Shaw. But, in 1994, after reading about the expected massive growth of the internet economy, Bezos left his job and moved across the country to launch an online bookstore out of a garage in the Seattle suburbs. Amazon’s website went live on July 16, 1995.

Nearly three decades later, Bezos is stepping down as Amazon CEO after he built the company into an ecommerce behemoth that’s also expanded its business into delivery logistics, data storage and web services, entertainment and grocery stores. Today, Amazon is one of the world’s largest companies, with a market value of more than $1.7 trillion.

Wealth

Bezos is clearly the winner when it comes to net worth. The Amazon founder is the world’s wealthiest person, thanks mostly to the value of his more than 10% stake in Amazon, with an estimated net worth of nearly $200 billion.

As Branson’s empire grew over the past several decades, he amassed a fortune that’s today worth an estimated $7.4 billion, according to Bloomberg, which ranks him as the 380th wealthiest person in the world, as of Friday.

Branson has used some of his wealth to fund various world-record attempts, including kitesurfing across the English Channel and crossing oceans in hot-air balloons. He also owns a number of luxury properties around the world, including his famous Necker Island resort in the Caribbean that he bought in the 1970s for just $180,000 but is now reportedly worth over $100 million.

Bezos also owns several valuable pieces of real estate, including his lake house in Medina, Wash., estimated to be worth $25 million, as well as $23 million Washington, D.C. mansion, an $80 million Manhattan penthouse, and a record-setting $165 million Beverly Hills mansion. Bezos is also reportedly building a massive yacht that will cost over $500 million.

Passion for space

Both Bezos and Branson have streamed large amounts of their huge fortunes into their private space companies.

Bezos, who has said he’s dreamed of going to space since he was 5 years old, founded Blue Origin in 2000. In 2017, Bezos said he was selling roughly $1 billion worth of Amazon stock each year in order to fund the private space company.

Meanwhile, Branson launched Virgin Galactic in 2004 with plans to take passengers to space, and he even started selling tickets for at least $200,000 apiece to future space tourists, reportedly including celebrities like Justin Bieber and Angelina Jolie. Branson has long maintained that he would be one of the first passengers on Virgin Galactic’s space flights, saying his dream of going to space stemmed from watching Apollo 11’s moon landing in 1969 at the age of 19. 

Branson’s Virgin Group said in 2009 that it had pumped roughly $100 million into Virgin Galactic before bringing on outside investors, including nearly $400 million from the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund Aabar Investments.

“I think space needs a lot of companies doing lots of different things to benefit the Earth back here,” Branson told CNBC in 2017, when he added that both he and Bezos want to develop space technology to benefit life on Earth.

Bezos has said that he sees developing space technologies as “important for this planet [and] important for the dynamism of future generations.” (In his high school graduation speech, Bezos even envisioned a future where humans leave Earth to live in colonies of space pods.)

Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have plans to transport tourists on short, suborbital flights to the edge of space, about 80 to 100 kilometers above the Earth, where they will experience a few minutes of weightlessness. By contrast, Elon Musk’s SpaceX already flies passengers into actual orbit and on longer flights, including to the International Space Station, and the company will send an all-civilian crew into orbit in September.

Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic do differ in how they launch passengers into space. While Blue Origin uses a rocket to launch passengers in its New Shepard capsule into space, Virgin Galactic transports passengers in a SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane. A carrier aircraft, called the White Knight Two, flies the SpaceShipTwo nearly 50,000 miles above Earth before the spaceplane detaches and its rocket engine sends the craft briefly into space before gliding back to Earth.

While Bezos’ space flight will mark the first time Blue Origin has sent human passengers to space, Virgin Galactic has run three successful space flight tests, so far, including one in May that included two pilots. Virgin’s July 11 launch will include four passengers, including Branson. 

Branson’s company also announced on June 25 that it received licensing approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly passengers on future commercial space flights, a major boost to the company’s plans to start flying paying passengers by 2022. Blue Origin has not yet announced when it plans to start regularly flying paying passengers.

In August 2020, Branson said he was planning on making his first trip to space in early-2021, but those plans were delayed somewhat after a computer malfunction delayed a previous Virgin Galactic test flight in February. However, Branson told CNN that the company’s successful May test flight gave him the confidence to put himself on the next launch, on July 11.

Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic did not immediately respond to CNBC Make It’s requests for comment.

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