The year is 2021 and two billionaires have successfully flown to space via companies they founded and funded. Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos — in that order, crucially — both flew to space this month and safely landed, ushering in a new space race fueled by private corporations.

Last month, Bezos made news when he announced that he would be boarding his space company Blue Origin’s first manned flight in July. Today, that flight finally happened, and Bezos, his brother, astronaut Wally Funk, and college student Oliver Daemen landed safely around 9:30 a.m. this morning.

But Bezos was beaten to the punch. When he announced his intention to board the flight in June, Richard Branson had not yet announced the date for his space flight, only saying that it would take place “later this summer.” But Bezos’ news lit a fire under his would-be spacefaring billionaire competitor, and Branson pushed up the date of his flight to July 11 so that he could claim the title of first billionaire in space. 

When we last tracked the growth of Bezos and Branson's spacefaring companies, we found that Virgin Galactic had a much smaller staff and was growing at a slower rate in comparison to Blue Origin. But despite its smaller size, Virgin Galactic’s move to push up the date of Branson’s flight has helped it capture more public interest than its larger competitor.

In the last three months, Virgin Galactic’s Twitter following has grown by 31.5%. Meanwhile, Blue Origin’s has only grown 16%, even with today’s successful flight. In the first two days after its space flight, Virgin Galactic increased its follower count by 56,000. The highly publicized event drew eyeballs to the billionaire space race, and Blue Origin benefited from the heavy coverage of its competitor, adding 10,000 followers in the same time period. Between yesterday and today the company added 5,000 new followers, but that still puts it several tens of thousands behind its competition. Being first has its merits.

Facebook Talking About counts show just how much public interest there is in space travel, whether it’s from a private corporation or not. Mentions of Virgin Galactic soared in the last month, jumping up from 199 in late June to 344,000 — a 173,000% increase one full week after Branson’s flight.

In the coming months, without any well-known business magnates to launch into the atmosphere, Talking About counts and follower counts may begin to shrink and slow. But the new space race is in full effect, and the public is paying attention.

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