Today, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic team made its mark on history, becoming the first commercial flight to the edge of space. There’s a few asterisks that go along with what this particular moment in history means, but for the billionaire boys spending big on space toys they’ll take every chance they can get to wave their hands in triumph.
It’s worth remembering that it’s been 20 years since the first space tourist, Dennis Tito, visited the International Space Station after buying a seat on a Russian Soyuz rocket. So this latest fight is about commercial missions to space that offer commercial seats on missions entirely designed for entertaining rich folks (with the occasional charity seat for added positive PR). Pure space tourism.
In that context, Richard Branson wins at delivering the first space tourism moment. And as is the Virgin way, they put on a very entertaining show. Stephen Colbert hosting the web broadcast? DJ Khalid debuting a new track during the event? The Virgin logo perfectly captured in the sky as the craft soared toward the edge of space? Next level entertainment.
The Unity 22 craft flew to 83km above the surface of the Earth. Which slots in right in the window where Bezos and his Blue Origin team can throw uncertainty onto whether Virgin Galactic ‘really’ took its crew to space. And I’m happy to argue that window of uncertainty means that everyone gets to claim the W.
According to NASA and the US military, 80km is the edge of space. So everyone on today’s flight – who got the full weightlessness experience for four minutes – gets their astronaut wings. USA! USA!
But then there’s the Kármán Line. Outside the USA, in a battle fit for metric versus imperial wars, the definition of space is the region 100km above the Earth (the US definition is ’50 miles’ even though NASA works in metric because SCIENCE).
Yes, 100km is also an arbitrary number, but it is based on the shift beyond the Mesosphere and into the Thermosphere, where aerodynamics have completely been left behind and only astronautics define the movement of a craft. The number could have been around the 90km mark… but metric lovers like round numbers, so 100km it is.
So Virgin Galactic’s Unity 22 doesn’t pass the Kármán line. But it was the first to give civilian passengers a bloody amazing trip to the edge of space and bring them home safely. And in a couple of weeks, Bezos and his brother will be aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepherd craft that will take its payload of partytime space tourists past the 100km threshold and make them the next first trip to take place.
Richard Branson says the difference in the experience between 83km and 100km is “practically non-existent”, and that anyway his next ship is totally going to go even higher than New Shepherd so who cares anyway? OK, I made that last part sound petulant. He seems comfortable with everyone steadily edging further and further out there to keep customers coming back – classic ‘bigger and better’ sales tactics, no doubt.
But it really is the case that everyone gets to be the first. Today was a first. Bezos will also fly a first. After that? It does start to settle into a groove that suggests we’ve hit that moment – when rich people and lucky prize winners get to experience the magic of space travel, even if just for a little while.