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Jeff Bezos on upcoming space launch, Branson rivalry and ethics of billionaires going to space

A day ahead of his space flight, the Amazon founder also addressed criticism over the use of his wealth to pursue space travel.
/ Source: TODAY

Jeff Bezos says he doesn't see it as any type of competition with Richard Branson as he gets set to be the second billionaire to blast off to space in the span of nine days when his Blue Origin rocket launches from the desert in west Texas on Tuesday.

"There's one person who was the first person in space — his name was Yuri Gagarin — and that happened a long time ago," Bezos told Hoda Kotb on TODAY Monday, referring to the Russian cosmonaut who went into orbit in 1961.

"I think I'm going to be No. 570 or something, that's where we're gonna be in this list. So this isn't a competition, this is about building a road to space so that future generations can do incredible things in space."

Bezos, 57, will be joined by his brother, Mark, 53, veteran pilot Wally Funk, 82, and 18-year-old Oliver Daemen from the Netherlands, who is the first paying passenger.

Funk and Daemen will both make history as the oldest and youngest people to ever go to space when the Blue Origin rocket blasts off 62 miles high from near Van Horn, Texas, for an 11-minute flight on Tuesday that will include three to four minutes of weightlessness.

Funk will achieve a lifelong dream after having been part of NASA's Mercury 13 astronaut program in the 1960s. She was not allowed to travel to space because of her gender.

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"I'm going to feel it," Funk said on TODAY. "It’s going to be absolutely not happy to touch or to grab something, I can just float to it and do my turns, and do my rolls, and that’s what I love to do, because I’ve done everything on an outside world, and I love it."

Bezos can also attest that Funk is physically ready to make the journey beyond the Karman line where space begins.

"Back when Wally was part of the Mercury 13 (program), all the testing that she did, she outperformed all of the men," Bezos said. "And we can confirm at 82 years old, she can still outperform all of the men. We've been doing the training with Wally, she can outrun all of us."

The Blue Origin flight differs from the Virgin Galactic mission in a few ways. Richard Branson used a space plane with a pair of pilots onboard, whereas the Blue Origin flight will have no pilots and be completely controlled from the ground. Blue Origin has conducted 15 unmanned test flights but none with humans until Tuesday's launch.

The Blue Origin mission will also fly at little higher at 62 miles high, compared to about 55 by Virgin Galactic.

Just like the Virgin Galactic flight, the Blue Origin rocket will not launch into orbit, but will give the crew a quick trip just above the line separating the atmosphere from space before returning back to the west Texas desert.

Much like Branson, Bezos has also faced critics questioning why he is spending so much of his immense wealth on a space adventure when it could be put to use to help problems on Earth.

"It's the job of this generation to build that infrastructure (for space travel)," Bezos said. "And of course people said, 'Look we have so many problems here on Earth,' and they're right. And we need to do both, and we've always done both.

"We need to focus on the here and now, and we need to look to the future, so we're building a road to space so that Oliver's generation can blow us away with amazing things and make life better here on Earth."

Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin Galactic, insisted he was not in competition with the Amazon founder before he and his crew flew to suborbital space on July 11.

"I hope that he has as extraordinary of an experience as we do," he told TODAY's Tom Costello after the flight.

Bezos, meanwhile, said he was looking forward to the journey of a lifetime.

"I'm so excited, I can't wait to see what it's going to be like," he said. "People say they go into space and they come back changed. Astronauts always talk about that, whether it's the thin limb of the Earth's atmosphere and seeing how fragile the planet is, that it's just one planet, so I can't wait to see what it's going to do to me."