Branson Beats Jeff Bezos to Space, Aiming to Open Space Tourism

The orbital trips are too expensive for anyone except the superwealthy — Axiom’s three customers are paying $55 million each — while suborbital flights might be affordable to those who are merely well off.

But how many people are willing to spend as much as some houses cost for a few minutes of space travel?

Carissa Christensen, founder and chief executive of Bryce Space and Technology, an aerospace consulting firm, thinks there will be plenty. “Based on previous ticket sales, surveys and interviews,” she said in an email, “we see strong demand signals for multiple hundreds of passengers a year at current prices, with potential for thousands if prices drop significantly.”

Mr. Anderson of Space Adventures is less certain.

“Per minute, it’s like a thousand times more expensive than an orbital flight,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

Two decades ago, Space Adventures did sell suborbital flights including a ticket to Ms. Funk, who goes by Wally. “Wally Funk was one of our first customers,” Mr. Anderson said. “That would have been like 1998.”

The ticket price then was $98,000.

At one point, about 200 people signed up for suborbital flights, but none of the promised suborbital rocket companies was able to get their space planes close to flight. Space Adventures returned the money to Ms. Funk and the others.

Now this unproven suborbital market has whittled down to a battle of billionaires — Mr. Branson and Mr. Bezos.

“If anybody can make money and make the market work for suborbital, it’s Branson and Bezos,” Mr. Anderson said. “They have the reach and the cachet.”

Michael J. de la Merced and Neil Vigdor contributed reporting.

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