When billionaires launched themselves into space this summer, people either stood in awe of the technical achievement, or they mocked the adventure as a publicity stunt. At least cynics have data on their side — both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin soared to new social media heights.
In July, two of the most widely publicized events of the year occurred, one by former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and the other by rival space pioneer and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson. Branson’s Virgin Galactic flew a winged plane with a rocket engine 50,000 feet in the air, carrying Branson and three other Virgin employees. 11 days later, the Bezos-founded Blue Origin took its own crew of four, including Jeff and his brother, Mark, for an 11-minute ride using a more traditional (if suggestive looking) rocket.
While both companies benefited from the publicity, Virgin Galactic gained more Twitter followers from its own flight, effectively winning this summer’s space race by at least that metric.
According to our data, Virgin Galactic’s biggest jump in Twitter followers occurred the day it sent Richard Branson into sub-orbit. On July 11, the company’s followers increased by 47,000, from 399,000 to 446,000. Even in the run-up to the launch, the company’s followers began ticking up as the media hyped up the billionaire space race. Facebook mentions of Virgin Galactic soared in the week after Branson’s flight, jumping up from just 199 in late June to 344,000 — a 173,000% increase.
Not to be easily outdone, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin nearly stole the show with its slightly higher altitude flight.
Our data shows that in the days leading up to Blue Origin’s launch on July 20, its Twitter followers were already on a strong upward climb. On the day of Bezos’ big flight, July 20, the company’s followers increased by 41,000, from 376,000 to 417,000, a slightly smaller increase — and follower count — than Virgin Galactic.
Although Elon Musk hasn’t blasted off yet, his own space company SpaceX is already leading the charge in terms of followers, and by quite a wide margin thanks to his otherworldly persona and other ventures, such as Tesla. SpaceX currently has 17.8 million followers, over 40 times more than Blue Origin. Granted, SpaceX has had far more publicity events, from rocket landings to sending a Tesla into space. Even Branson, a master of PR who arguably created the tech billionaire archetype, hasn’t managed to catch up with Musk yet.
In September, however, SpaceX is planning to steal back the limelight from Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. An all-civilian crew of four will board SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft and orbit the Earth for three days before returning for a splashdown off the coast of Florida. If successful, it’ll be the first spaceflight without any professional astronauts aboard, potentially paving the way for a space tourism industry.