Virgin Galactic is continuing to make final preparations for the historic flight of its VSS Unity vehicle on Sunday morning, carrying the company’s founder, Richard Branson, and three other employees. To that end, on Friday, the company announced that it will have a livestream, hosted by Stephen Colbert and featuring a new song by Khalid, to publicize the flight into space.
But wait, is it really space? Amazon founder Jeff Bezos says Virgin Galactic’s flights above 80 km are not space.
In a pair of salty tweets on Friday, Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin, took potshots at Virgin Galactic and its rocket-powered space plane. “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,” the company tweeted. “For 96% of the world’s population, space begins 100 km up at the internationally recognized Kármán line.”
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. pic.twitter.com/QRoufBIrUJ
— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) July 9, 2021
The 96 percent implies that the rest of the world, aside from the United States, recognizes 100 km as the boundary of space. Both the US Air Force—which awarded astronaut wings to X-15 pilots who flew above 80 km—and the US Federal Aviation Administration have said that 80 km represents space.
Meanwhile the World Air Sports Federation, or FAI, uses 100 km to delineate the boundary of space for the purposes of establishing world records. However, the organization says it is looking at lowering this boundary from 100 km to 80 km, due to “recently published analyses [that] present a compelling scientific case for reduction in this altitude.” This reevaluation is based partly on the scholarship of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics scientist Jonathan McDowell.
These two tweets from Blue Origin on Friday, which to be clear had to have come from the desk of Bezos, strike us as petty. Sure, Blue Origin’s launch system goes higher. But Virgin Galactic has already flown humans to space three times. And some customers will appreciate the space plane experience more than a rocket launch.
This tone is strikingly smug for a rocket company that has yet to launch any people into space, nor put even a gram of payload into orbit after more than 20 years. At least Branson’s other space company, Virgin Orbit, has already successfully reached orbit twice, and should soon begin to do so frequently. And just what sort of image is Bezos going for here, anyway? While he is building a $500 million super yacht, his main competitor in the space race, Elon Musk, is living in a $50,000 house in South Texas so he can be near his engineering and technical teams working on his Starship project.
Most likely Bezos simply remains upset at being upstaged by Branson, who moved forward his flight on the VSS Unity spacecraft after Bezos announced he was flying into space on July 20 aboard his suborbital New Shepard system. So Bezos had his communications team put together this graphic and tweet it out less than two days before Branson’s flight. In the end, the tweets tell us more about Bezos than they do about his rocket—which is excellent—or of Virgin Galactic.
Anyway, you should totally watch the Virgin Galactic livestream, which begins at 7 am Mountain Time, or 13:00 UTC on Sunday morning. Ars will be on hand to take in the spectacle.