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In the last two weeks, two of the world’s most eccentric billionaires have claimed they went to space.
On July 12, Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson boarded VSS Unity, a spaceplane built by his company. Branson flew to an altitude of about 80 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, where he spent several minutes before returning to Earth.
And on July 20, Blue Origin owner Jeff Bezos boarded his company’s New Shepard rocket and shot himself to about 106 kilometers above the Earth before returning a few moments later.
To be sure, these flights were impressive. There were many records broken, including the oldest and youngest people to ever fly to space, who joined Bezos in his rocket. These flights have also planted new flags in terms of what the private sector is capable of in regard to manned flight opportunities.
What Constitutes ‘Going to Space?’
However, my concern with the news headlines about billionaires going to “space” is that it’s more than a little bit deceptive to describe what these pioneers did as “going to space.”
Branson’s flight of 80 kilometers just barely crossed the altitude threshold of 50 miles that the United States considers the official point at which “space” starts. Bezos, who of course bested Branson by going to a higher altitude, actually crossed the Karman Line – an imaginary threshold at 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface that most other countries recognize as the official boundary.
But the important thing to understand is that both of these lines of demarcation are completely arbitrary. There is no particular reason or justification for these recognized delineations, other than for the purposes of common understanding in conversation and mission planning. There is absolutely nothing special about 50 miles up, 100 kilometers up, or any other altitude for that matter.
It’s also essential to note that, relative to other human space endeavors, these flights did not go particularly fast or far. The lowest satellites in orbit are several hundred kilometers above the surface. Neither Branson’s nor Bezos’s spacecraft even go fast enough to achieve orbital velocity at any altitude.
These vehicles created by Branson and Bezos are designed for parabolic trajectories, which means they go up pretty high for a few minutes and then simply fall back down to Earth. They could not stay up in space even if they wanted to.
Keeping Spaceflight in Its Proper Perspective
To be clear, I’m not trying to take anything away from either one of these gentlemen’s achievements. Spaceflight is difficult. The engineering talents that were required to make these flights a reality are impressive. And the courage that it takes to be among the first people to ride a newly designed chemical bomb through the sky to any altitude deserves respect.
But I do think we should keep travel to “space” in perspective and consider what these flights actually were, compared to the enormity of the horizon still ahead of us. For example, the distance to the International Space Station is about four times farther than either of these two flights actually went.
Similarly, the Moon is about 3,844 times farther. Mars, at its closest approach to Earth, is 557,638 times farther. It’s sufficient to say: space is big.
So to say that these flights went to “space” is a little bit like walking to your mailbox and then declaring that you just “traveled the world.” I mean, yea, technically, I suppose that’s true in the sense that your “travels” were on the surface of what we know as the “world.” But to describe what you did in this way – in light of the size of the Earth – is obviously pretty misleading.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin’s Future Plans
Despite my criticism of the news headlines, I’m actually thrilled that both of these flights were successful. Both private-sector companies aim to use their technologies and resources to make space accessible to the human race.
Virgin Galactic is already pre-selling tickets for space tourism flights aboard their spaceplanes – albeit at obscene prices. And Blue Origin’s value proposition isn’t quite clear yet, but it seems to be geared toward developing space in a number of ways that would be helpful to our species.
So these technological developments in regard to space are good. I’m extremely glad both flights accomplished their goals and that all the passengers made it back to Earth safely. I think that these milestones will serve to show other private-sector space industry startups what is possible with innovation and determination.
Hopefully, with additional competition, there will come a commoditization of spaceflight services that leads to falling prices. Perhaps the cost of spaceflight might even sink low enough so that mass-market consumers could be able to visit space themselves someday.
Keeping Space Activities in Perspective
However, it’s also important that we keep in perspective all that there is yet to do in space. The International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope are both scheduled for retirement without parallel replacements. We’ve not been to the Moon in almost 50 years. We’ve dreamed of settlements on Mars, but we have yet to send anything but robots and orbiters there.
Space holds untold opportunities for us as a species, but the vast majority of those opportunities lie well beyond 80 or 100 kilometers above the ground. So we should congratulate Branson and Bezos for taking these leaps.
But we should also recognize them as the baby steps that they are and continue to press forward so as not to be deterred by an unearned sense of accomplishment and complacency. There is much more work yet to be done, so let us keep looking ahead.