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Richard Branson’s Plan to Beat Jeff Bezos to Outer Space

Rich men don’t like to lose. Last month, the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced that he was leaving Earth in July. He would be going to space for eleven minutes on a rocket ship built by his company, Blue Origin. Space travel, he said, in a hype video posted to Instagram, was the thing he’d wanted to do all his life. Bezos didn’t seem to be exaggerating. “I am really interested in space exploration, but the truth is, it’s some number of years off,” he told an Amazon employee, back in 1996. Selling books online, Bezos said, was something “to do in the meantime.”

The meantime took longer than Bezos had hoped. He created Blue Origin in 2000, before Elon Musk had SpaceX or Richard Branson had Virgin Galactic. But Branson beat him by first putting an astronaut into space, in 2018; Musk beat him by first putting a rocket into orbit, in 2010; and Musk, the recipient of a giant NASA contract to build a lunar lander, will likely beat him to the moon.

Bezos is eager to steal a win from his rivals. The announcement of his coming mission, on July 20th, coinciding with the anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, would do just that. Bezos would achieve something that neither Branson nor Musk has yet done: he would put himself into space.

Bezos will not be going alone: he plans to take his brother, Mark; the as yet unidentified winner of an auction who paid twenty-eight million dollars for a seat; and an eighty-two-year-old female pilot named Wally Funk, who, in the early sixties, along with twelve other women, was put through the same rigorous tests to which NASA was subjecting its male astronauts. The privately funded program was cancelled, Funk and the other women went home, and her dream of becoming an astronaut died. Or so she thought. “I can hardly wait!” Funk said, in another video that Bezos put on Instagram.

As of his announcement last month, Bezos appeared on the verge of triumph. Branson, his main suborbital challenger, wasn’t due to fly on Virgin Galactic’s rocket ship until the company completed at least one more test flight. But Branson, a showman as much as a businessman, is not one to cede the stage. Only hours after Bezos posted the video of Funk’s joy, Branson broke some news of his own: he would be on the next Virgin Galactic flight—nine days before Bezos. (The flight is scheduled for this Sunday; Stephen Colbert will host the live cast, and Khalid will perform a new song for the occasion.) So much for stealing a win. “The billionaire space race is heating up,” the Washington Post said. Branson has subsequently tried to downplay the rivalry, asserting that what appears to be a ploy to leapfrog Bezos is just “an incredible, wonderful coincidence,” adding, in a separate interview, “I’ve never seen this as a race.”

Nonsense. In the past, Branson has stated his ambitions plainly. “I hope that Virgin Galactic will be the first of the three entrepreneurs fighting to put people into space to get there,” he said, in 2018. I spent four years inside Virgin Galactic, first for this magazine and then for my new book, “Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut.” Branson’s employees know the game. “It was always important for us to be first and beat Blue,” a former Virgin Galactic executive told me. In 2015, shortly after Blue Origin conducted a successful test flight, Mike Moses, Virgin Galactic’s president, said, “I look at their timeline and see that they have a good shot at beating us.” But “beating us” to where? The space race is actually many races: Musk versus Bezos to Mars, Musk versus Bezos to the moon, and Bezos versus Branson to shuttle tourists to the low edge of space.

Bezos and Branson have unique visions for their respective shuttle services. Blue Origin uses a traditional, vertical-launch configuration; Virgin Galactic flies a winged rocket ship that is launched into the air from a mother ship. Blue Origin is mostly automated; Virgin Galactic is mostly analog, with its ships flown by élite test pilots, the type familiar to fans of “The Right Stuff.” Mark Stucky, Virgin Galactic’s lead test pilot, once described Blue Origin to me. “They’ve got some astronauts,” he said, “but I don’t know what the hell they’re going to do besides act like they’re doing something. It’s ‘Three, two, one—blastoff.’ ”

Bezos and Branson also have different definitions of “outer space.” The edge of space, according to the leading international aerospace body, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, is three hundred and twenty-eight thousand feet in the sky. There is nothing magical about three hundred and twenty-eight thousand feet; freeze-dried ice cream tastes bad above or below it.

But, in 1957, when humans began thinking about space travel, an American lawyer named Andrew Haley, the president of the International Astronautical Federation—unrelated to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale—thought that it would be wise to demarcate space. Haley proposed a “critical jurisdictional line” two hundred and seventy-five thousand feet above sea level, where “airspace” ended and “outer space” began—an imaginary line “separat[ing] the territory of air-breathing vehicles from that of rocket vehicles.” Drawing from the research of a Hungarian-born physicist, Theodore von Kármán, Haley called his line the Kármán Line.

A year later, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale convened a group of American and Soviet scientists, who proposed their own space boundary: a hundred kilometres, an even number that translated to about three hundred and twenty-eight thousand feet. Haley, curiously, accepted this new boundary and said that it “coincides” with his own, despite being fifty-three thousand feet higher. The Kármán Line has been an invisible obsession for aspiring astronauts ever since. When Scaled Composites, a boutique aviation firm in Mojave, California, was building SpaceShipOne to compete in, and ultimately win, the 2004 Ansari X Prize, they made its tail number N328KF.

Originally, Virgin Galactic’s goal was to reach three hundred and twenty-eight thousand feet. (Branson, upon SpaceShipOne’s victory, hired Scaled Composites to build him a bigger version, with seats for eight—two pilots, six passengers—called SpaceShipTwo.) But, over the years, as engineers made the ship stronger, it has become heavier, and Virgin Galactic has revised its expectations. First it reduced the number of passengers from six to four; then it reconsidered its definition of space, from a hundred kilometres to another round number: fifty miles, or about eighty kilometres.

Virgin Galactic was not the only one rethinking the boundaries of space. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard, had been exploring the same question. In October of 2018, he published an article in Acta Astronautica, a peer-reviewed academic monthly, titled “The Edge of Space: Revisiting the Karman Line.” He drew on history, explaining how, in the late fifties, the U.S. Air Force began awarding astronaut wings to pilots who flew above fifty statute miles, and how fifty miles was not only a “nice round figure” but also “the right choice from a physical point of view” because the mesosphere starts about fifty miles above sea level.

McDowell made a scientific argument, too. As von Kármán had done, he contended that our notion of space should begin wherever orbital dynamics exceed aerodynamic forces—wherever an airplane can no longer operate like an airplane—and demonstrated that, based on ballistic coefficients and modern atmospheric models, fifty miles is a “suitable choice to use as the canonical lower ‘edge of space’ in circumstances where such a dividing line between atmosphere and space is desired.” For some, the new line for outer space became fifty miles, or two hundred and sixty-four thousand feet.

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