ON Sunday, July 11, Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin commercial empire, took a ride on a suborbital spaceplane built by one of his companies, Virgin Galactic. The global news media, using completely inappropriate superlatives such as "historic" and "record-breaking" has subsequently spent every day since cramming the story down everyone's throats, and I suspect most people are tired of it. I know I am.
Nevertheless, Richard Branson and his little "spaceship" are an interesting case study in why the world probably deserves an extinction-level meteor impact, and so, the topic is worth a little more examination.
First, the particulars of the flight itself. The vehicle, known as "SpaceShipTwo," with Branson, three other Virgin Galactic employees and two pilots aboard, was lifted to an altitude of about 46,000 feet above its base in New Mexico by a carrier plane dubbed "White Knight Two." The spaceplane then detached and fired its single-rocket motor for 70 seconds to accelerate upward, then coasted to its peak altitude of about 282,700 feet (roughly 53 miles or 86 kilometers) a few minutes later. The plane then descended, taking about 25 minutes to glide to a landing back at its base, which is grandiosely named "Spaceport America."
The flight was only the fourth powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo; an earlier version, SpaceShipOne, successfully flew three times before suffering a mechanical failure and crashing during its fourth flight in 2014. Branson's expressed goal for his program, which has been in development for about 17 years, is to be able to enter the "space tourism" business or, in other words, provide recreational flights for paying passengers who wish to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see some nice views of the Earth from extremely high altitude.
First of all, there was nothing at all "historic" or "record-breaking" about the flight. Although the Virgin system surely represents a great deal of refinement in the technology, the basic system of launching a rocket-powered plane from a carrier aircraft has existed since the end of World War 2. The concept of "space tourism" is nothing new as well; the first "space tourist" spent a week on the International Space Station in 2001, and there have been others since (at prices of upward of $20 million for the privilege).
And unlike Branson, those forerunners can actually claim to have been to space, whereas the limit of his achievement was to have been "really high up." Although the relatively modest altitude achieved by SpaceShipTwo has sparked something of a debate about where "space" really starts, there is actually a reliable definition: it is called the Karman Line, and it is at an altitude of 100 km or 62 miles; in other words, about 17 kilometers higher than Branson and his fellow passengers traveled. To put it in a more familiar perspective, that would be like traveling from Caloocan to Manila and then going home and telling everyone you visited Las Pias.
Granted, the Karman Line is an arbitrary boundary. What is considered "the edge of space" in a scientific sense may be much higher or somewhat lower, depending on who you ask. There is a specific reason, however, why the 100-km altitude is a valid benchmark. According to the internationally-recognized legal definition of space, based on the principle that space cannot be claimed as territory, the Karman Line marks the ceiling of any country's airspace. Get above that line and you're in space; below it and you're in the territory of whatever country is below you. Thus, Richard Branson didn't go to space; he just went to a really remote part of New Mexico.
Why, then, if Richard's Big Adventure was so unimpressive, have we been compelled to hear so much about it? It is because for his entire career, Richard Branson has been a master of image cultivation and marketing. By crafting a persona of the hip, rebel adventurer - in short, an annoying wanker - he has managed to fool the entire world into assuming he has done innovative things and made billions in the process.
Compared to his contemporaries like Jeff Bezos, who is scheduled to ride his own rocket next week, or Elon Musk, whose SpaceX company has built a fleet of space trucks, Branson is contributing almost nothing to the overall human march to the stars, except for what amounts to a very expensive amusement park ride (tickets for a Virgin Galactic flight will start at something north of $250,000). Bezos and Musk are every bit as annoying as Richard Branson if not more so, but both of their space ventures are long-term programs with real practical aims toward offering broader commercial opportunities in space, space exploration, and even colonization of the Moon and Mars. Naturally, they will make a great deal of money from pursuing those aims, but they are at least potentially contributing to the greater good.
Richard Branson, on the other hand, gets all the rest of us to contribute to Richard Branson, on the basis of his being Richard Branson. As one glaring example, he was able to prevail upon the government of New Mexico, one of the poorest states in the US, to pony up some $220 million in state taxpayer money to build his "Spaceport America," and then let it sit idle for 10 years before finally moving Virgin Galactic's operations there.
It is somewhat impressive that he has been able to make his vacuous, personality-worship business model work to his advantage, but rather than praising him for it, we should blame ourselves for letting him do it at the rest of the world's expense.
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