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Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, center, celebrates this week’s successful test flight of VSS Unity with test pilots Rick “CJ” Sturckow at left and Mark “Forger” Stucky at right. Branson says he’ll be Unity’s first commercial passenger. (Virgin Galactic / Quasar Media Photo)

MOJAVE, Calif. — The first suborbital space passenger is less likely to be a billionaire like Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson or Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos, and more likely to be an as-yet-unnamed employee at one of their companies.

That’s despite Branson’s promise, reiterated in the wake of Thursday’s successful test flight past the 50-mile altitude mark, that he’d be the first commercial passenger on Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity within the next few months.

The word “passenger” is key: We’re not talking about the people who are actually flying the spacecraft, such as the two test pilots who were at Unity’s controls this week. Rather, we’re talking about folks who will be seated in Virgin Galactic’s Unity rocket plane, behind the pilots, or in Blue Origin’s New Shepard crew capsule.

“Suborbital” is key as well: There have already been a good number of passengers on orbital spacecraft, going back to the days of Russia’s Mir space station in the 1990s. Seven people have paid their own way for trips to the International Space Station, with the official status of spaceflight participants. Looking ahead, passengers may get their chance to purchase seats on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon or Boeing’s Starliner space capsule.

When it comes to Branson’s status in particular, “commercial” is the key word. The British-born billionaire plans to take a seat on the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane once operations have shifted to Spaceport America in New Mexico, where more than 600 paying customers hope to follow in his trail at a cost of as much as $250,000.

However, Virgin Galactic’s development timeline calls for putting its own staff members in Unity’s seats before Branson, during the latter stages of the flight test program at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port.

In addition to fine-tuning Unity’s flight systems, those test flights will check how the seats work, especially during the minutes-long stint of weightlessness at the top of the ride, Virgin Galactic CEO George T. Whitesides told reporters here in Mojave, just hours after Unity’s 51.4-mile-high outing.

“We’ve been flying the passenger seats in the last couple of flights, but in static mode,” he explained. “So, over the next few flights, we will start to fly them in dynamic mode — because, as you may know, we move the seats back and forth during the flight. Then we’ll start putting people, staff, in the back to test out our operational procedures with the passengers. … Once we’ve gotten through that, we could start thinking about commercial flight.”

That’s when Branson would fly, Whitesides said. (It should be noted, however, that as Virgin Galactic’s owner, Branson has the prerogative to move up his reservation.)

Blue Origin, the Kent, Wash.-based company founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, has sketched out a similar path to passenger service. Its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft, consisting of a booster stage and a crew capsule, has gone through nine uncrewed flight tests in West Texas — most recently in July.

The latest word is that the six-passenger New Shepard will start flying people in the first half of 2019.

“I was hopeful it would happen in 2018,” Bezos said in October at the Wired Summit in San Francisco. “I keep telling the team it’s not a race. I want this to be the safest space vehicle in the history of space vehicles.”

But Blue Origin hasn’t yet started taking reservations, nor has it named its price for suborbital spaceflights targeting altitudes beyond 100 kilometers (62 miles). The first crewed flights, operated under autonomous control, are slated to carry Blue Origin employees rather than paying passengers.

It’d be a stretch to call any of those employees “test pilots” in the traditional sense, because New Shepard is designed to be controlled autonomously. However, Blue Origin does have former NASA astronauts on its staff, including Jeff Ashby and Nick Patrick, and they’d be natural candidates to take the first rides.

Bezos has said the doors would be open to paying customers only after the conclusion of the test program.

Will Bezos follow Branson as a passenger in his own space vehicle? That’s the plan, although he’s not saying how soon he’ll fly.

“I’ll go up in New Shepard for the suborbital mission,” Bezos told me during a Colorado space conference in 2016. “Then I’ll go into space in our orbital vehicle as well at some point. I want to go into space, but I want to do it in Blue Origin vehicles.”

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