Just a generation or two ago, Tom Wolfe described the mettle of test pilots turned astronauts as “The Right Stuff.” Now, all one needs to get to outer space is a big pile of green stuff, or perhaps gold.
Space is open to anyone who can cover the steep price of admission. Sir Richard Branson — founder of Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic airlines, and now Virgin Galactic — proved the concept and opened the starry skies to space tourism with a crew of three employees, along with two pilots, in an hour-and-a-half flight aboard the V.S.S. Unity.
A more fitting name would be the V.S.S. Vanity.
The moment was livestreamed on the web, narrated in part by late night host Stephen Colbert. Branson’s space plane dropped from an aircraft nearly 46,000 feet in the sky, then fired a rocket that propelled it three times the speed of sound en route to an altitude more than 53 miles above the Earth. That’s well above the threshold of what the U.S. military considers “space,” and plenty high enough to unbuckle the seat belt and float about the cabin — for about four minutes.
Then the SpaceShipTwo plane glided back to Spaceport America in the middle of the New Mexico desert, where it was met by a party featuring the R&B star Khalid, who wrote a song, “New Normal,” for the occasion.
Branson isn’t the only billionaire with designs on space. Jeff Bezos, who has built his own commercial spaceflight company, Blue Origin, is eyeing the cosmos aboard a ship, New Shepard, that’s more rocket-like in design. He’s scheduled to take a voyage this week.
And so the planet’s most exclusive club is open, even if it’s one that people can only visit for a few minutes at a time and if they’ve got the $250,000 that Virgin Galactic is charging for tickets. According to Business Insider, 600 people have already booked trips aboard Branson’s plane, the likes of which include Tom Hanks, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber.
For those of us who’ve worshipped Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Sally Ride and the rest of the astronaut corps, this at once feels so expensive and so cheap. Up to this point in human history, the short list of people who’ve looked back upon our planet was populated mostly by heroes. Soon the privilege of sharing that vantage, even if only briefly, will go to people who’ve paid but done nothing else to earn it.
And for what? Branson’s accomplishment amounts to the joy ride to beat all joy rides. Wouldn’t hundreds of millions of dollars in development have better been spent filtering carbon from the atmosphere or screening plastics out of our oceans?
Elon Musk, who is also pursuing space excursions via his company, Space X, at least has visions of true exploration by sending humans back to the moon and then onto Mars. Branson’s state goal, on the other hand, is to make the lower reaches of space accessible — which is something, given today’s price tag, is still far distant in the future for most people.
For all of the hype of Branson’s flight, it bears noting what it wasn’t. Even rocketing at some 2,300 miles per hour, that was but a small fraction of the speed needed to truly break gravity’s pull and pass into low orbit of the Earth. By internationally recognized standards — the Karman Line at 100 kilometers above sea level, or 62 miles — it wasn’t even high enough to truly be recognized as space by a majority of Earth’s population.
So while the flight of V.S.S. Unity was a spectacle and certainly an achievement, throwing around the title “astronaut” as Branson, his passengers and employees are apt to do in describing themselves, is a bridge too far.
It doesn’t matter how much money they’ve spent.