Last Sunday a British man made history by leading a team further than they have ever got before. No, we’re not talking about Harry Kane leading England to their first ever Euros final, but Richard Branson, the 70-year-old founder of Virgin Galactic, leading that company’s first ever manned flight to space.
After the flight in the shuttle SpaceShip Two Unity 22 on 11 July, Branson was photographed looking victorious at Spaceport America in New Mexico and called the hours-long trip the ”experience of a lifetime.” Presumably the only thing that would have made him happier would have been a handy Virgin Galactic stewardess whom he could lift aloft like a trophy.
Instead, he had to make do with becoming the first of the tech billionaire space obsessives to actually venture into the cold reaches of space itself – a significant step not only in the tech mogul race to dominate space travel, but in humankind’s relationship with space.
Even if you belong to the group that believes money is best spent on solving problems on earth instead of adventuring in space, a successful commercial flight ad astra has huge potential for capturing the world’s imagination (although perhaps not quite to the same degree as Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford et al).
Branson managed the feat after travelling 53 miles above the earth. But there is some controversy around whether he actually achieved space flight or not. While the US Federal Aviation Administration considers 50 miles above the earth to be the edge of space and awards astronaut wings to anyone who gets that far, the Kármán line – at 62 miles above the earth – is the internationally recognised threshold where space is said to begin.
Naturally, Branson’s main competitor, the earth’s richest man (and, by default, also the galaxy’s richest man) Jeff Bezos threw shade at Branson’s accomplishment, suggesting Branson’s trip to ‘space’ was essentially a glorified flight.
Bezos own space flight company, Blue Origin is set to launch its first flight – with Bezos aboard – on 20th July. Ahead of the flight, and following Branson’s own trip, Blue Origin tweeted:
“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.”
Adding that “Only 4% of the world recognizes a lower limit of 80 km or 50 miles as the beginning of space. New Shepard flies above both boundaries. One of the many benefits of flying with Blue Origin.”
However, with a reported 600 customers lined up for Virgin Galactic space flights from 2022 (at a ticket price of £180,000) a seat, no less) Branson is unlikely to be concerned about Bezos’ barbs.
It isn’t all bad blood among the tech space jet set either: Elon Musk’s Space X has previously tweeted in support of Virgin Galactic and Branson has invited Musk to his Virgin Galactic launch party.
But how, exactly, did Virgin Galactic find its way to the launch pad in the first place?
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