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Blue Origin vs Virgin Galactic: How Do the Space Tourism Giants Stack Up?

Space tourism has liftoff, with billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson leading the charge. Their companies, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, both recently launched their founders to the edge of space, garnering worldwide attention.

But how exactly do these nascent space tourism ventures compare? While their goals include opening access to space for more humans, their technologies, costs, and business models show important differences.

Brief Histories of Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic

Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, two years before he started selling books online with Amazon. He began investing $1 billion per year into the company, fueled by sales of his Amazon shares. With slower initial progress than fellow billionaire Elon Musk‘s SpaceX, Blue Origin remained largely secretive over its first decade and finally began flight testing in 2015. After multiple delays spanning at least 4 years, the company conducted its first crewed New Shepard launch in July 2021 with Bezos onboard alongside pioneer aviator Wally Funk and others.

Richard Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004 on the wings of his successful Virgin Atlantic airline. Focusing on a rocket-powered spaceplane dubbed SpaceShipTwo for space tourism flights, Branson hoped to leverage proven aviation and hospitality industry expertise. But Virgin Galactic also faced multiple delays including rebuilding SpaceShipTwo after a tragic 2014 test flight crash that killed a pilot. Finally in July 2021, Branson and his crew flew the redesigned VSS Unity spaceplane to reach NASA‘s astronaut wings boundary of 80 km, beating Blue Origin‘s founder into space by 9 days.

The Technologies Powering Each Spacecraft

While both designed for suborbital space tourism flights, Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo spaceplane rely on very different underlying technologies.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard is a traditional vertical takeoff, vertical landing rocket system that launches autonomously. It uses Liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants in a BE-3 engine to ascend past the Karman line at 100 km, recognized internationally as the boundary of space. New Shepard‘s crew capsule fits 6 passengers inside 530 cubic feet of space. At apogee, passengers experience 3-4 minutes of weightlessness and can unstrap from seats to float in the cabin while gazing at Earth through large windows before a parachute descent back to land upright. Meanwhile, New Shepard‘s booster performs a powered vertical rocket landing for reuse, having separated from the crew capsule earlier to shed velocity. These maneuvers subject passengers to a maximum of 5.5G and 15G during ascent and descent respectively based on its technical specifications.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo system relies on a twin hull carrier aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo to fly its rocket-powered spaceplane up to launch altitude. At 45,000 feet, SpaceShipTwo weighing 60,000 lbs drops from beneath its mothership weighing 140,000 lbs. A hybrid rocket motor using solid fuel and liquid oxidizer then ignites to blast SpaceShipTwo in a steep climb, exceeding 2,500 mph to reach apogee at about 80 km a few minutes later. The passenger cabin fits up to 8 people into 400 cubic feet of windowed interior space with each seat inclined reclined for safety. Floating in microgravity for 4-5 minutes, passengers strap back in prior to descent. SpaceShipTwo then reconfigures into feathered, gliding orientation using wings rather than parachutes for an unpowered runway landing back on earth, subjecting passengers to up to 6G at most.

So while New Shepard is a traditional rocket system launching and landing vertically, Virgin Galactic’s design relies on horizontal takeoff from an airliner-style mothership with spaceplanes gliding back unpowered like the Space Shuttle.

Digging deeper technically, Blue Origin’s engines burn liquid oxygen and hydrogen fuel rather than SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid solid and liquid propellants. Methane, which SpaceX selected for its new Starship system, offers higher performance than hydrogen but requires cryogenic freezing for storage unlike solids. Virgin Galactic‘s hybrid motor avoids the extreme temperatures and pressures inherent to liquid rockets. Materials-wise, New Shepard utilizes lightweight carbon composites extensively whereas Virgin Galactic relies on an aluminum and steel alloy structure to handle the feather mechanism‘s added stresses. Meanwhile SpaceShipTwo eschews flight control via moving aerodynamic surfaces for directing all thrust through tilting its rocket motor nozzle and feathering system.

And while Blue Origin focuses fully on spaceflight, Virgin Galactic gained certification as a commercial spaceflight operator from the FAA in 2021, coming from an aviation heritage. So Virgin can leverage existing airplane safety frameworks while innovating technically as the National Transportation Safety Board oversees its ongoing mishap investigation from its latest test flight. Ultimately for passengers though, both New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo utilize redundant systems like multiple parachutes and rocket motors along with advanced simulators prioritizing a safe, consistent experience during nominal flights.

Mission Differences: Industrialization vs Space Tourism

While both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic aim to expand access to space through reusable suborbital rockets, their core missions show fundamental differences.

Jeff Bezos views inexpensive, frequent access to space as a key stepping stone toward his long-term visions of space industrialization. He wants to expand energy-intensive industry off earth including manufacturing and mining for materials. This preservation of Earth could allow millions of people to live and work in rotating orbital space colonies in the future. "We get to preserve this unique gem of a planet, which is completely irreplaceable,” said Bezos. Meanwhile Richard Branson’s near-term focus remains squarely on space tourism, selling tickets for brief suborbital flights to well-heeled customers as a way to eventually open space to more humans globally. But Virgin Galactic also conducts experiments on its flights, aiming to advance microgravity science research.

So Blue Origin takes a broader view toward colonizing space for survival, while Virgin Galactic focuses first on space tourism flights as its track to scale up reliably.

Based on their few short flights so far, Blue Origin wants to tap into exponentially growing sectors like satellites and deep space exploration as national space budgets plateau according to a Morgan Stanley forecast. Sending small experiments or deploying satellites using New Shepard could eventually become a revenue stream before launching people routinely. An unmanned flight in August 2022 carried NASA-supported technologies supporting long term habitation concepts as well as art projects.

Whereas Virgin Galactic continues flying private astronauts and partners including Under Armour founder Colin Kaepernick, the Italian Air Force, and the University of Florida. Its model to monetize space focuses clearly on selling life experience tickets and corporate sponsorships targeting high net worth individuals first rather than directly entering contracted payload services markets now. 2022 flights expanded Virgin‘s commercial scientific research while verifying cabin upgrades. So the companies mainly differ regarding priority customers in the near term.

Over the next decade, both companies’ Market forecasts vary widely from around $2 billion toward $20 billion by 2030 split across tourism, experiments, satellites, and human spaceflight infrastructure. So while rich ticket sales pale currently before expensive government contracts and satellite deployment revenues, signs point to surging global interest in commercial access to space.

Ticket Costs and Revenue Comparisons

Given Jeff Bezos’ astronomical personal wealth compared to Richard Branson’s, it’s no surprise that Blue Origin appears better funded in its space endeavors. Since going public in 2019, Virgin Galactic has focused more narrowly on space tourism and flying experiments to finance its growth. Meanwhile Blue Origin has greater leeway to experiment, having secured over $1 billion in NASA space systems development contracts to date thanks exclusively to Bezos’ funding since its inception.

And their ticket prices reflect these differences. Seats aboard New Shepard cost a cool $250,000 in 2022 compared to $450,000 for Virgin Galactic’s reservations, which require a $150,000 deposit. So suborbital space flight remains firmly in the realm of the ultra-wealthy for now, with Blue Origin coming in 45% cheaper as a private company with more vehicles compared to its pureplay tourism focused rival.

As for revenues? Blue Origin does not disclose finances as a private company solely funded by Jeff Bezos, only having secured its first government technology contracts in recent years alongside NASA co-investment. Virgin Galactic generated only $3.8 million in ticket sales in 2021, with an overall loss of $352 million. And its operating expenses continue increasing by over 30% this year even as ticket prices doubled. So neither company flies enough paying customers yet to recoup their development costs enroute to their goals of higher flight rates and increasing cost efficiency.

Industry analysts estimate Blue Origin’s development expenses over $1 billion per year. But Virgin Galactic’s efforts measure likely 10x lower over the past decade in aggregate, though costs continue rising steeply. So Bezos enjoys a years-long headstart in vertical rocket technology applied to space tourism as Branson plays catch up via his aviation-inspired approach. Ultimately public listing provided Virgin liquidity for its growing pains as both companies now focus on reliably scaling commercial operations.

Workforces and Leadership

Given its later start and lower funding, Virgin Galactic employs far fewer people than Blue Origin even after going public to raise over $800 million. Staffing disparities result from differences in launch systems complexity as well as corporate history.

As of mid-2022, Blue Origin has about 3,600 employees on staff, up 15% this year alone even after senior technical leaders departed recently reportedly due to organizational culture differences. Headquartered in Kent, Washington, its team hails from a mix of leading aerospace conglomerates plus technology giants like Google and Apple focused on innovative software development techniques.

Whereas Virgin Galactic relies on under 1,000 people to develop, test, and operate its space planes currently. And its future growth centers on Spaceport America, the first purpose-built commercial spaceport constructed in New Mexico capable of supporting frequent launches of multiple SpaceShipTwo vehicles to scale the tourism business. An increasing number of staff works onsite alongside key contractors like Alphabet’s Terran Orbital who acquired Virgin Orbit’s satellite arm earlier in 2022.

In leadership, Jeff Bezos recruited former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver in September 2022 as CEO to run day-to-day operations, while he remains Executive Chair. Garver joins Blue Origin after advising Earthrise Alliance, a climate change nonprofit helping governments fund emerging technologies across renewable energy, agriculture, and space tech. “She’s the perfect fit as Blue Origin enters its rapid growth phase,” said founder Bezos announcing her appointment.

Richard Branson leads his company’s Board of Directors and often dominates public messaging. But Michael Colglazier, formerly a Disney Parks executive, directs overall Virgin Galactic strategy as CEO focused on commercial spaceflight operations. His hospitality industry marketing experience aims precisely at attracting tourists to buy tickets priced like luxury resort packages during a recession Nonetheless, 70% of reservations today were sold before 2019 as remaining 2022 flights seek to stoke additional demand.

So Blue Origin claims deeper leadership experience in traditional rocketry and propulsion while innovating rapidly on industrial use cases with Bezos’ patient backing. Whereas Virgin Galactic adds expertise in aviation operations, hybrid propulsion testing, luxury hospitality sales and modern commercial spaceport management necessary to sell tickets for routine suborbital space flights as a compelling life experience.

The Road Ahead: Lowering Costs While Expanding Access

Both companies aim to ramp up flight rates significantly in coming years from their slow initial paces, which should drive down ticket prices over time from current lofty levels. But calls for speed must balance pragmatically against continuing delays and remaining technology risks.

On the rocketry front, Blue Origin wants to fly New Shepard monthly in 2023, then weekly “in a couple of years” according to CEO Greg Garver. More frequent launches can help amortize fixed costs if sustained while increasing operational readiness. Reusing New Shepard 15 times could reduce effective costs per flight by 30-50% some analysts estimate based on marginal refurbishment expenses. The company is also developing New Glenn, a reusable heavy lift orbital rocket that will compete directly with benchmark leader SpaceX. Certifying New Glenn for costly U.S. national security launches starting in 2025 remains a financial growth opportunity if successful.

Whereas Virgin Galactic hopes to conduct one more test flight in 2022 before launching commercial service in early 2023, aiming for 20-40 flights per year over the long run across multiple spaceports eventually. By scaling up manufacturing of SpaceShipTwo vehicles in its New Mexico spaceport and improving ground infrastructure, Branson’s company wants to rapidly grow the suborbital experience itself as more tourists learn about the exhilarating option. Virgin Galactic also has ambitions to develop an orbital spaceplane for point-to-point hypersonic airline travel if demand and funding materializes.

Industry experts project both companies need to achieve hundreds of flights annually to substantially reduce ticket prices from current levels exorbitant for most people. Optimistically that threshold is at least mid-decade timing for Virgin Galactic if setbacks refrain while Blue Origin advances its orbital plans. "Expect us to go carefully, because nobody races rockets to space, but you will see us go fast,” promised then CEO Bob Smith in 2019 prior to successive delays.

But amid growing climate concerns, rocket reusability and hydrogen propulsion advances at Blue Origin might shape up as a longer-term ecological advantage. Bezos references the Day 1 mantra ingrained at Amazon, saying “Every time they’ve tried to rush a space company it’s gone badly.” So a prime difference in the billionaires’ race to open space emerges between Virgin Galactic’s sprint mentality as a public company versus Blue Origin’s methodical marathon approach afforded by abundant funding.