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Richard Branson
Richard Branson says he’s in a friendly rivalry with Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture may have done another flight test, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX is making waves with its rocket progress – but don’t forget about Richard Branson.

“Our spaceship comes back and lands on wheels. Theirs don’t,” the billionaire founder of Virgin Galactic said during a CNBC interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “There’ll be banter like this which will take place, and that’s good. People will have a choice of which spaceships they want to use to go to space.”

Blue Origin is developing spaceships for suborbital as well as orbital trips. In November, Blue Origin’s uncrewed New Shepard test vehicle went into space for the first time and made a successful vertical landing. If all goes well, the company could be flying passengers in two years.

Today there was a torrent of tweets about a possible Blue Origin flight test. First, the Federal Aviation Administration alerted aviators to stay away from the airspace over the company’s test range in West Texas. Then, around midday today, the restrictions were lifted. One Twitter user, Patrick Brown, went so far as to post a picture of what appears to be a rocket trail leading up from the company’s test range in West Texas.

Blue Origin kept mum. “Unfortunately, Blue Origin doesn’t have anything to contribute at this time,” the company said in a statement emailed to GeekWire.

Also today, SpaceX unveiled a video that showed its Dragon 2 capsule going through an important thruster test. The five-second hover marked one small step toward the goal of having future Dragons touch down on a landing pad, and eventually on Mars.

SpaceX made a splash last December when the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket put a cluster of satellites in orbit, and then aced an on-land touchdown in Florida. Last week, another Falcon 9 almost pulled off the world’s first successful rocket landing on an oceangoing platform. If all goes well, SpaceX could be flying astronauts for NASA by the end of next year.

Virgin Galactic, meanwhile, is trying to follow up on 2004’s successful flights of the SpaceShipOne rocket plane. The company suffered a fatal setback in 2014 when its SpaceShipTwo vehicle broke apart during a test flight, killing the co-pilot and injuring the pilot. A second SpaceShipTwo is due to be rolled out next month. If all goes well, paying passengers could be riding SpaceShipTwo into space in a couple of years.

Branson told CNBC that his rivalry with the other two billionaires is good-natured. “I’m good friends with Elon,” he said. “Jeff, I don’t know enormously well. You need competition, and the public will benefit from the three of us getting out there and competing.”

There’s an extra dimension to the competition between Branson and Musk: SpaceX has set up an operation in the Seattle area to develop satellites that could provide global Internet access. Virgin Galactic, meanwhile, is backing a rival effort led by OneWeb.

Branson argued that SpaceShipTwo’s horizontal-landing capability will give it an advantage for point-to-point suborbital space travel – for example, flying from Tokyo to Los Angeles in an hour. But to keep pace with SpaceX and Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic will eventually have to send something into outer space.

The British billionaire acknowledged to CNBC that he was just telling his side of the story, rather than Bezos’ or Musk’s. “If you’re interviewing them, they would give lots of reasons why they’ve got advantages over us,” he said.

And there’s one more side of the space billionaire story yet to be told. Your move, Paul Allen.

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