When Richard Branson, aboard his own Virgin Galactic’s spaceship, rocketed to space on Sunday morning, it was a new day for the world. Now, regular citizens like you and me (but really much more like Branson), can write a big check and depart the planet, kind of, for a short while. The mission was not without asterisks.
But before you think I’m trying to downplay this, look at the photos and watch the video. The experience was literally like nothing you could go through on Earth.
Branson’s chariot departed Sunday (July 11, 2021,) at 8:20 a.m. from Virgin Galactic’s New Mexico Spaceport. The spaceship, dubbed VSS Unity, carried two crewmembers, Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, and three Virgin Galactic employees in addition to Branson. After taking off from Spaceport’s 12,000-foot runway and climbing to 50,000 feet, it released the spaceship, which rocketed away, climbing to 53 miles high (about 282,000 feet), where the occupants experienced four minutes of weightless, leaving their seats to get the full effect and gawk at the views. At that point, the crew feathered the tail and pointed the nose down to earth. The entire fight lasted about an hour and a half.
Unity, like the Space Shuttle of days past, is a spaceplane. That is, it’s designed to get to space (with a boost—the Shuttle was launched from a pad, and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two makes use of the mothership), perform its space mission and then return to Earth as a glider, landing on a runway, just as the Shuttle did.
There were no paying passengers aboard Unity. When Bezos launches next week on his Blue Origin spacecraft (if it goes off as planned), there will be, in addition to Bezos, a paying passenger, an unnamed individual who reportedly paid $28 million for the seat via a charity auction. So that will mark the first official commercial passenger carrying spaceflight. If you don’t count the Russians, who’ve been doing it for more than a decade.
Where does space begin, though? It depends on whom you ask. The FAA recognizes any flight that goes above 50 miles as being in space, and that has been a controversial subject since NASA started doing it in the late ’50s so that its X-15 pilots could qualify for astronaut wings. A more widely recognized atmospheric limit, the Kármán Line, is more than eight miles higher, at 62 miles.
Speaking once more of billionaires, Blue Origin, which is slated to fly on July 20th with owner Jeff Bezos aboard, will indeed go beyond the Kármán Line. So, Bezos’ folks are pointing out the difference, though Branson downplays it as being little more than a technicality. It’s all pretty predictable behavior from folks for whom a billion dollars is rounding-off money.
But it’s a real departure from the salad days of space, of Gemini and Apollo. Today’s space industry, a weird, adolescent competition among billionaires, is surreal. It’s big tech unleashed in the most dramatic way imaginable.
Almost lost among the posturing and the taunting is the fact that some cool aerospace stuff is happening, and all of it is being done by private companies who are setting themselves up to make dough flying tourists to space, for a start, at least. It’s not normal tourism, though. We should be clear, once again, that these tourists are paying about as much as most people pay for their home for the privilege of those four minutes of floating like a butterfly. Is it worth it? You could ask them once they actually do it, but the answer would be an obvious, “You bet your Earthbound *#^ it is.” But the opportunity is not available to people like you and me.
But if you asked the engineers and pilots and ground controllers that same question, “How cool is this?” the answer you’d get would be the same, though it would be far more meaningful coming from them.
So, cutting through the noise, and there is so much noise here it’s easy to lose sight of the achievement, let’s just say, congratulations, all. Sunday was a remarkable day in the skies above New Mexico, regardless of where you draw the line for space and, without question, the world has been changed in ways we surely don’t yet fully appreciate, some of which will guide the future of space flight and how we see the world, and the heavens.