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Richard Branson makes his move in billionaire space race

The billionaire space race is on: Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson is on the crew for the next test flight of the company’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, which is scheduled to cross the 50-mile space frontier as early as July 11. That’s nine days before Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos is planning his own suborbital space trip.

Virgin Galactic’s flight test plan, announced today, sets up a battle for the bragging rights associated with being the first person to ride his own company’s rocket ship into space.

Neither man would be the first billionaire in space. That distinction belongs to veteran Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi, who traveled to the International Space Station in 2007 and 2009.

Moreover, the definition of the space frontier could add an asterisk to the record book: Virgin Galactic sides with the Federal Aviation Administration in defining the space boundary as the 50-mile-high mark. Blue Origin plans to send its New Shepard spaceship beyond the 100-kilometer (62-mile) altitude that serves as the internationally accepted boundary of space, known as the Karman Line.

The height issue came up in an emailed statement from Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith, referring to Branson. “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.

Whether it’s 50 miles or 100 kilometers, the suborbital race to space is likely to make for a dramatic few weeks, considering the risks that come with testing new space vehicles — not to mention the egos of the billionaire space barons.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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