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Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic, Drew Angerer/Getty Images

When Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson take flight aboard the rockets their companies built, the hopes and dreams of a burgeoning industry will be flying with them as well.

Why it matters: Accidents or errors on these high-profile flights from Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin could derail their plans — and possibly affect others' plans — for commercial space tourism and travel.

Driving the news: Last week, Virgin Galactic announced that it would push to fly Branson and others on a fully crewed test flight on July 11, just ahead of Blue Origin's first flight with Bezos, scheduled for July 20.

  • There has been a low hum of animosity brewing between the two companies in public since it was revealed Bezos might fly before Branson.
  • That rivalry spilled over last week after the Branson announcement, with Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith saying the two companies aren't after the same prize in these first flights.
  • “We wish him a great and safe flight, but they’re not flying above the Karman line and it’s a very different experience,” Smith said of Branson and Virgin Galactic in a statement via the New York Times. (The Karman line is the unofficial altitude at which space begins, about 62 miles up.)

The big picture: Launching and building satellites is a big moneymaker in the space industry, but suborbital space tourism is seen as a means of getting more people interested in the space industry in the long term.

  • In theory, these flights should be more affordable and available to a large group of people who will only need to train for a day or two before going to the edge of space.
  • If something were to go wrong with one of these high-profile, early flights, it could threaten the companies' business plans going forward and cast doubt on whether suborbital space tourism could serve as a boon for the rest of the industry.

Flashback: An accident during a Virgin Galactic test flight in 2014 left one pilot dead.

  • After the crash, Branson considered stopping development of the company's space plane altogether.

Yes, but: The company did continue on, and public support for it has been steady.

  • It's possible an accident from either of the companies wouldn't hurt public opinion of the endeavor as a whole.
  • Depending on why an accident occurred, "I don't think you would see a mass exodus of Virgin Galactic reservation holders or a noticeable drop in interest in flying on Blue Origin," space historian Robert Pearlman said.

What to watch: A major failure or problem could also put pressure on Congress to start pushing for more regulation of private human spaceflight, which some argue could stifle the space travel industry just as it is beginning.

  • At the moment, the FAA is not allowed to regulate the safety of "spaceflight participants" — Bezos, Branson or anyone else who would fly on one of these vehicles — until at least 2023.
  • Instead, the crews today fly under a regime known as "informed consent" where they must agree to and be told of the risks before launch.
  • That moratorium on regulation was put in place in order to allow the industry to launch before restrictions were placed on it.

Go deeper

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Updated Sep 15, 2021 - Science

Inspiration4 launch: SpaceX to send 1st all-civilian crew into orbit

Photo: Inspiration4/John Kraus

The Inspiration4 crew is set to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Wednesday evening. The first all-civilian flight to orbit will act as a proof of concept for SpaceX and the broader private spaceflight industry, which wants to send many more people to space in the coming years and decades.

The latest: SpaceX has completed fueling the Falcon 9 rocket. The launch, streamed live via SpaceX, remains on schedule for liftoff at 8:02 p.m. ET.

16 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Senate Republicans sink short-term government funding, debt limit bill

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Senate Republicans on Monday voted down the House-passed bill to fund the government through Dec. 3 and raise the debt limit.

Why it matters: Congress is just 72 hours away from a potential shutdown, so now comes Democrats' Plan B. Democratic leadership is expected strip the short-term funding bill of language about raising the debt limit — the part that Republicans' reject — in order to pass a bill before federal agencies close down on Friday.

Mike Allen, author of AM
3 hours ago - Energy & Environment

Laurene Powell Jobs' $3.5 billion climate campaign

Laurene Powell Jobs, president of Emerson Collective, is investing $3.5 billion in her new climate-action group, the Waverley Street Foundation — all to be spent in 10 years, as a way to show urgency on the issue.

  • Then the group will sunset.

The big picture: The foundation "will focus on initiatives and ideas that will aid underserved communities who are most impacted by climate change," an official tells Axios.

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