WASHINGTON: The era of space tourism is set to soar, with highly symbolic flights by rivals Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin scheduled just days apart. Virgin Galactic — founded by flamboyant British billionaire Richard Branson — is planning for a July 11 space flight. Blue Origin — started by Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame — is set to blast off on July 20. The two companies will serve the nascent market for suborbital flights lasting just a few minutes, long enough for passengers to experience weightlessness and view the contour of the planet. But that”s where their similarity ends. Branson, who heads the Virgin Group conglomerate that includes everything from entertainment to financial services to telecoms, founded Virgin Galactic in 2004. The 70-year-old”s previous daredevil exploits include crossing the Pacific in a hot-air balloon and navigating the English Channel in an amphibious vehicle. Bezos is 57 years old and the world”s richest man. A science fiction fan, he founded Blue Origin in 2000 and recently stepped down as Amazon CEO to focus on space projects and other endeavors. The spacecraft developed by the two companies could not be more different. Virgin Galactic”s spacecraft is not a classic rocket. It”s attached to the belly of a large carrier airplane that takes off from a runway. After an hour it reaches an altitude high enough to release the smaller spacecraft, the VSS Unity, that in turn fires its engines and reaches suborbital space — where passengers float weightlessly for a few minutes — then glides back to earth. The spacecraft can accommodate two pilots and up to six passengers. The cabin has 12 large windows and 16 cameras. Blue Origin in contrast is more of a classic rocket experience, with a vertical blast-off that accelerates to more than Mach 3, or three times the force of Earth”s gravity. Once it reaches the proper altitude, a capsule separates from the booster and then spends four minutes at an altitude exceeding 60 miles (100 kilometers), during which time those on board experience weightlessness and can observe the curvature of Earth.