As It Happens·Q&A

Did Richard Branson really make it to space? Technically, it depends who you ask

Billionaire Richard Branson says he beat billionaire Jeffrey Bezos to space when he blasted off in his own rocket ship on Sunday, though not everyone agrees. 

Branson's Virgin Galatic ship took him 80 km above Earth, which meets the U.S. definition of space

Richard Branson, owner of the space-tourism company Virgin Galactic, takes in the view after going into space. (Virgin Galactic)

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Billionaire Richard Branson says he beat billionaire Jeffrey Bezos to space when he blasted off in his own rocket ship on Sunday, though not everyone agrees. 

Branson's Virgin Galactic rocket hurtled him 80 kilometres above Earth, which is the altitude several major U.S. institutions recognize as the boundary of space, and far enough to experience four minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth 

But Blue Origin, the space company founded by Bezos, takes umbrage with Branson's claim. It boasted on Twitter that its ship is designed to travel 100 kilometres above our home planet, hitting space barrier defined by Hungarian-American engineer Theodore von Kármán. The Amazon CEO will take flight on Blue Origin's rocket July 20. 

So who's right? According to space analyst Laura Forczyk, it's all semantics. 

Forczyk, who runs the company Astralytical, spoke to As It Happens guest host Duncan McCue. Here is part of their conversation. 

I know this is kind of a profound question, but what is space anyway?

Space, in the way we define it, is an area of vacuum that has very little or nothing in it. Now, that is a very simplified way of describing it, because there are a lot of things in space. But the way we define it is that it is outside of Earth's atmosphere. Although, one can say that Earth itself is in space.

Did [Branson] actually make it to space?

He did. So according to the U.S. definition — and Virgin Galactic is a U.S. company — space is defined as about 50 miles, or approximately 80 kilometres, and that is where they were yesterday. They reached something like 83 kilometres. And that is space as it's defined in the United States.

The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo space plane Unity and mother ship separate as they fly way above Spaceport America, near Truth or Consequences, N.M., on Sunday. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images)

As it's defined in the United States. But but there's been a lot of talk about this Kármán line as the official boundary line of space. Can you explain a little bit about that, about where this boundary came from and whether whether that one holds up?

Von Kármán was a researcher who decided to look into where the orbital mechanics of things orbiting Earth — you know, the speed at which they orbit in the gravitational pull of the Earth. 

In his original research, he actually decided it was actually closer to 80 kilometres. But he was doing an order of magnitude. That means he decided to round it up to 100 kilometres. We like round numbers.

And so that number has stuck. And that is the official definition for [the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale], an organization that is based in Switzerland, that a few countries around the world have agreed to and a few organizations that have a lot of defining power.

But here in the United States, traditionally the U.S. Air Force, and then following that, the Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA, and NASA have defined it traditionally as 50 miles. And again, that is also a round number. We like round numbers.

So there's really no clear answer here. 

So this discrepancy between where Earth ends and space itself begins, is this just a matter of discussion among scientists, or is this just another example of two billionaires and their egos?

I think it's a little bit of both in this case, because we saw Blue Origin, a competitive company, say they were going to go above 100 kilometres, therefore they were better than Virgin Galactic.

But that is a bit of an ego trip, because both of them are going to have their passengers experience about four or five minutes of microgravity, floating around in the freefall, and both of the providers are going to have the curvature of Earth in the dark sky with the stars. And so both of them are going to experience very similar types of things at their varying altitudes.

And, of course, it's going to be different if you're in orbit. So you've got orbital-space-flight providers saying that they're better, and that is a bit of an ego trip. And so it really just depends on what the customer wants.

Richard Branson rockets to space on his own ship

1 year ago
Duration 3:07
Richard Branson won the billionaire space race, beating out Jeff Bezos when he travelled into space on his own Virgin Galactic rocket ship Sunday. These private enterprise expeditions may help usher in an era of space tourism.

You mentioned Mr. Bezos and his Blue Origin team. I mean, as far as they're concerned, it's settled. I mean, they tweeted the other day, I'll quote them: "None of our astronauts have an asterisks next to their name. For 96% of the world's population, space begins 100 kilometres up at the internationally recognized Kármán line." What would you say to their assertion?

Well, Blue Origin is again based in the United States, which says it's actually 50 miles, so there is no asterisk here in the United States.

Both the Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic passengers and customers are going to be considered astronauts for marketing purposes. They're actually defied by the government as spaceflight participants, unless they are crew.

But also that number — that 96 per cent of the world's population — that's not quite accurate either, because most of the world does not care where space begins. There's very few countries around the world that have actually ruled on this. The United States, legally, hasn't even ruled on it. It's just specific bodies within the United States — U.S. Air Force, FAA, NASA — they've decided.

But there is no legally recognized boundary for the rest of the world or here in the States either. And so it really just is a bit of semantics.

Many people have pointed out that the vast sums of money that have been spent to fund these two missions perhaps could have been spent on more pressing issues here down on Earth. What would you say to those people?

Remember, none of this money is spent in space. A hundred per cent of the money is spent here on Earth for both people that are directly involved, but also indirect, you know, components and services and all the different type of things that go into this kind of space flight.

And there's also a really great science. So Virgin Galactic yesterday flew the very first human-tended suborbital research experiment. There had been research experiments on suborbital craft for decades, but this one that flew yesterday was the very first one that a human got involved. And it was a manipulating plant biology.

And so you can imagine in the future, researchers, scientists flying with their payloads and all the really great research that could be done on these suborbital craft. 

So there's really great practical reasons to do that. It's not just a bunch of billionaires throwing money around. There's actually really great science and technology to be done.

How feasible do you think it is that we'll see more of these "space" flights in the foreseeable future?

This is the beginnings of a brand new industry in its infancy. So this is just the very start of what could become very acceptable space flight for the masses, and maybe in the next few decades.

If you remember, aviation just started out about a century ago for the wealthy and the elite and then it became so commonplace for you and me that it is now just a means of transportation that is taken it for granted.

But imagine a century from now how we might just think of space flight as a means of transportation that we take for granted. And you don't know how the view of the Earth from above is going to change the perspective of humanity and how we view our planet.


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by John McGill. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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