If you consider 53 miles (88km) above the Earth to be outer space (NASA does, but not international aviation and aerospace federations, which designate it as the so-called Karman line 62 miles (100 km) above Earth), and you consider 15 minutes in flight with four minutes of weightlessness while watching the curvature of the Earth out the window to be space travel, then billionaire Sir Richard Branson, founder of the space company Virgin Galactic, beat fellow billionaire and space company (Blue Origin) founder Jeff Bezos into space by nine days. Is this really big news for the rest of us or just billionaire bluster and brouhaha?
“The whole thing was magical.”
Not exactly “One small step for man,” but Richard Branson isn’t Neil Armstrong or William Shakespeare either. However, within the billionaire space travel triumvirate which includes SpaceX’s Elon Musk, Branson is by far the biggest space-related entrepreneur, daredevil and physical risktaker, with a successful airline (Virgin Atlantic) and an attempt at circumnavigating the world by balloon to his credit.
“Seventeen years of hard work to get us this far.”
While his goal is always making money – in this case by selling space trips to the general, albeit rich, public – Branson put considerable cash, sweat and time into this flight. Carried to 50,000 feet from the company's Spaceport America facility in New Mexico by a dual-fuselage plane, the rocket plane VSS Unity then blasted Branson, two pilots and three other passengers to an altitude of 53 miles. They experienced a 3.5 G-force until reaching the brief cruising altitude, where they spent four minutes weightless and gawking out the windows at the curved (sorry, flat earthers) surface and dark space above, before flying back to a landing at Spaceport America. The VSS Unity portion of the flight was about 15 minutes. (Watch the whole thing here.)
“It was the experience of a lifetime."
Obviously giddy, Branson, aka "Astronaut 001" for the Unity 22 mission, will suitably celebrate while his ground crew inspects the vehicles and prepares for two more test flights before beginning full commercial service in 2022. In the meantime, Jeff Bezos will prepare for his July 20th trip in his New Shepard capsule, which will be launched via conventional rocket and carry Bezos, his brother, soon-to-be-world’s-oldest astronaut, 82-year-old Wally Funk, and another passenger to an altitude of 62 miles (100 km). All piloting of New Shepard will be done by computer and ground crews, with Bezos strapped in for a suborbital trip, weightlessness, staring at the curvature and eventual plunge back to Earth before a parachute-softened landing.
Meanwhile, Elon Musk stays on the ground, making money by ferrying astronauts to and from the ISS, launching Internet satellites and other payloads, and getting ready for moon and Mars trips. He wished Branson well and will probably do the same to Bezos.
Kudos to Sir Richard Branson for his brief yet historic sub-orbital trip into space. Was it a good thing for the rest of us? Besides a welcome break for the rest from the world news … not really. It would be nice of these billionaires looked down and realized how much more good their money could do back on Earth. Will that happen? Not if there’s no profit in it.