The billionaire space race
We can be sure of one thing. When Virgin Galactic owner Richard Branson successfully rocketed to space on July 11, 2021, other billionaires were watching. In particular, Jeff Bezos – founder of Amazon, owner of the Washington Post, and owner of the sub-orbital spaceflight services company Blue Origin – was already slated for his own flight to space on July 20. In fact, Inc.com reported that Virgin Galactic had moved its launch date forward so that Branson could reach space before Bezos. Did Bezos respond to Branson’s reaching space before him with a gracious nod and sincere congratulations? Sort of, but not exactly. In fact, Blue Origin posted a colorful chart (shown below) to the company’s Twitter just two days before Virgin Galactic’s July 11 flight, highlighting some differences between its own rocket and that of Virgin Galactic. The chart compares the rockets’ vehicle types down to their window sizes. And it points to an internationally recognized boundary to space, called the Kármán line.
Nitpicking? Possibly. The issue is that international law doesn’t have a definition for the edge of space. So different countries (and companies) use different definitions. The U.S. military, the Federal Aviation Administration, and NASA all set the boundary of space at 50 miles (80 km) above ground. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), an international record-keeping body for aeronautics, defines the Kármán line as the space boundary, at an altitude of 62 miles (100 km).
On July 11, Branson flew with five other passengers on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo plane named VSS Unity. Team members celebrated in a live broadcast as the spaceplane reached its final altitude of more than 53 miles (86 km). Spaceflight Now called it:
… an edge-of-the-seat sub-orbital test flight intended to demonstrate his company’s air-launched spaceplane is ready for passengers who can afford the ultimate thrill ride.
But the flight did not pass the Kármán line.
From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name. For 96% of the world’s population, space begins 100 km up at the internationally recognized Kármán line. pic.twitter.com/QRoufBIrUJ
— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) July 9, 2021
What defines “space?”
Of course, there’s no physical boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. So the definition is open to interpretation. That definition, though, is important for legal and regulatory purposes, for both aircraft and spacecraft. The Kármán line (aka the von Kármán line) is named for Theodore von Kármán (1881–1963). He was a Hungarian American engineer and physicist who was active in aeronautics and astronautics. According to Wikipedia:
In 1957, he was the first person to attempt to derive such an altitude limit, which Kármán calculated as 275,000 ft (84 km).
So, by the original definition of the person who first conceptualized the Kármán line, Branson’s sub-orbital flight to 86 km on July 11, did pass the Kármán line, barely.
But the definition of the Kármán line has since changed, as much of science morphs and changes throughout time. The Kármán line, after all, is an attempt to define a boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. It is set, conceptually speaking, at the altitude at which Earth’s atmosphere becomes too thin to support aeronautical flight. As Wikipedia explained:
Any vehicle above this altitude moving at a suborbital velocity would not be able to use aerodynamic lift to support itself.
Nowadays, as mentioned above, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale defines the Kármán line as the altitude of 100 km above Earth’s mean sea level. Not all organizations recognize this definition, and so there are various definitions of the Kármán line.
A flawless flight
Credit where credit is due. Virgin Galactic’s successful launch and landing of its first-ever fully crewed flight on Sunday, July 11, was said by many to be flawless. It marked a huge milestone for the commercial spaceflight company. Liftoff came at 10:40 a.m. EDT (14:40 UTC) from Spaceport America, a commercially licensed spaceport in southwest New Mexico. The company’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane carried the spaceplane VSS Unity to an altitude of roughly 50,000 feet (15,000 m). Then, in the Virgin Group’s signature air-launch strategy, it separated and thrust Unity into low-Earth orbit from that point.
Both aircraft made a safe runway landing back at the Spaceport about an hour later.
Besides Branson, Unity 22’s passenger crew consisted of Beth Moses (Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor), Sirisha Bandla (VP of government affairs), and Colin Bennett (lead operations engineer). Pilots Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci rounded the team out and occupied the final two of the six seats onboard.
Branson called it “the experience of a lifetime” during the live broadcast of the flight.
Among the press, Virgin Galactic invited customers with reservations for a future flight to watch the launch in person. Another billionaire and friend to Branson – SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk – was in that crowd and shared public support for his friend.
Virgin Galactic owner Richard Branson rocketed into space Sunday, an edge-of-the-seat suborbital test flight intended to demonstrate his company’s air-launched spaceplane is ready for passengers who can afford the ultimate thrill ride.
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) July 11, 2021
The passengers and pilots of Unity 22 got an experience few on Earth have had or will have. They got to see the blackness of space around the curve of Earth while experiencing at least four minutes of weightlessness.
That extended weightlessness isn’t because there’s no gravity in space. Gravity operates at a distance. The moon, for example, a quarter million miles away is held in orbit by Earth’s gravity. In fact, Earth’s gravity is essentially just as strong 50 miles high as it is on the ground. Branson and team experienced free fall. That is, the passengers were falling at the same pace the plane was falling around them. The experience is also possible with the famed Vomit Comet, which only flies six miles (10 km) high. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station – which orbits 254 miles (400 km) up – also experience weightlessness, in the presence of microgravity.
And in any case, the purpose behind the Unity 22 mission is to focus on “cabin and customer experience objectives,” according to a statement made by Virgin Galactic.
Objectives include evaluating the comfort of VSS Unity’s cabin, the quality of the view of Earth from space, and how training prepared the passengers for their flight.
According to the same statement, the mission’s review and inspection immediately followed the successful launch and landing. It will help inform Virgin Galactic’s flight program as it strives for full commercial service in the year 2022. And, with Unity 22, the company appears poised to meet its next-year target.
Richard Branson called his flight to space “the experience of a lifetime” in a radio transmission from the VSS Unity rocketplane as it glides back to landing at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) July 11, 2021
Space for all?
During the broadcast on July 11, Branson said:
We’re here to make space accessible to all.
However, “all” does not include the vast majority of humans living on Earth. Tickets to Virgin Galactic’s space experience are currently rumored to go for a quarter-million U.S. dollars per seat.
Virgin Galactic has expressed hope that broadening opportunities to fly to space will bring down the cost of a ticket in the future. But for now, only people with spare cash equivalent to the cost of some houses will be able to afford a few moments at the edge of space.
Bezos gets gracious
In the final analysis, yes, Blue Origin did make a point of highlighting a difference between billionaire Branson’s trip to the edge of space on July 11 and billionaire Bezos’ impending flight on July 20. Blue Origin claims most experts wouldn’t count Branson’s trip as “space flight” since it never crossed the Kármán line, the internationally recognized edge of space at 100 km above sea level.
On the other hand, if we can pretend to understand the emotional life of billionaires for a moment … you can’t blame Bezos. According to Inc.com:
Going to space is a big deal for Bezos. In his Instagram post announcing he would be going, he explained it was a lifelong dream.
‘I want to go on this flight because it’s the thing I’ve wanted to do all my life,’ Bezos wrote. ‘It’s an adventure. It’s a big deal for me.’
Bezos isn’t going to space alone, by the way. He also announced he would take his brother, and Blue Origin auctioned off an seat, reportedly for $28 million. The fourth and final seat is going to to Wally Funk, described by Inc.com as:
… an astronaut who never got to make the trip because she is a woman.
Inc.com also explained:
Since announcing he would make the trip, Bezos has gone to quite the effort to raise its profile. Not that it wasn’t already sky-high, if for no other reason than the world’s richest man, who is the executive chairman of one of its most important companies, was going to climb on a rocket and ride into space.
Of course, it was a big deal for Blue Origin, which has yet to send any people into space. Climbing onboard doesn’t only raise the profile of the trip. It also sends a vote of confidence that Bezos believes his company is at least on par with SpaceX, which has mostly led the private space industry.
And, you’ve got to hand it to the guy, Bezos did finally congratulate Branson and wish him well, shortly before Branson’s July 11 flight:
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Bottom line: Two spaceflight companies, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, jostled a bit for bragging rights after Richard Branson’s successful flight to the edge of space on July 11, 2021.