Where does ‘space’ begin? Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin disagree on definition amid Richard Branson’s flight

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Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson is seen before his spaceflight on July 11, 2021, near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

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(NEXSTAR) – Richard Branson became the first billionaire businessman to fly to space, at least as far as the U.S. and its definition of “space” is concerned.

Branson’s successfully rocketed to an altitude of approximately 282,000 feet, or over 53 miles, on a Virgin Galactic space plane following Sunday morning’s launch from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. But some — including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin spaceflight company — claim that space starts at 62 miles up.

Branson, who turns 71 next week, had only recently announced his participation in Sunday’s launch, which comes nine days ahead of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos launching toward space aboard Blue Origin’s first manned spaceflight on July 20. Branson, however, claims he doesn’t view the similar space missions as some sort of “race” between the two billionaires, he told “Good Morning America.”

VSS Unity
Branson and his fellow crew members are seen during a period of microgravity aboard the VSS Unity during its successful spaceflight on July 11, 2021. (Virgin Galactic)

But even if it’s not a “race,” Blue Origin has called into question whether Branson’s rocket would actually enter space.

NASA, as well as the U.S. Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), currently consider “space” to start at 50 miles above the Earth — a threshold that Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity soared past on Sunday. But on July 20, Bezos and his crew intend to fly over the Kármán line, defined as around 62 miles (or 100 kilometers) above the Earth.

The Kármán line is also recognized as the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, a Swiss-based governing body and record-keeping organization.

Blue Origin and its CEO Bob Smith have made it known that their craft — the New Shepard — will cross this boundary on July 20.

“We wish him a great and safe flight, but they’re not flying above the Kármán line and it’s a very different experience,” Smith told CNBC in a statement issued last week.

On social media, Blue Origin further suggested that Virgin Galactic’s astronauts would need “asterisks” next to their names following the VSS Unity’s flight.

“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 wrote on Twitter. “For 96% of the world’s population, space begins 100 km up at the internationally recognized Kármán line.”

It’s worth noting that there is no accepted global definition regarding the boundary where space begins. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a spacecraft would have to travel 600 miles above Earth to escape the planet’s atmosphere completely — meaning that the International Space Station (orbiting between 205 and 270 miles up) wouldn’t even be considered as being in “space.”

Terminology aside, Blue Origin and its founder Jeff Bezos both wished Branson luck before the VSS Unity left the ground in New Mexico.

“Wishing you and the whole team a successful flight tomorrow,” Bezos wrote on Instagram, beside a photo of Branson.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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