Richard Branson has made billions of dollars in his career as an entrepreneur. However, his most recent accomplishment now defines his legacy. On July 11th, Branson and three others traveled into space on Virgin Galactic (a Branson-owned group) rocket, marking the first private space flight. This marks a new milestone of the space era: privatization. Beginning in the 1960s, the initial goal was to reach space. Then, nations tried and succeeded in putting men on the moon. And then, there was a long period of sending satellites and rovers for information gathering. But now, the space race has turned private. The new crowning achievement is to send citizens into space. And while it is primarily billionaires now, down the road, hopefully, space transportation becomes available to the broader public one day.
Branson obviously took the flight for the thrill of exploring space. It is not the first time he has sought out adventures. In 1986, he claimed the record for the fastest Atlantic crossing. He has attempted hot air balloon travel across the Atlantic. And now, Branson became the first billionaire to take a private flight to space. However, while thrill-seeking was a part of his motivation, surely publicity was a strong motivating factor.
A television spectacle
Spaceflight has always attracted the public’s dreamy eye. Something about space seems great, mysterious, and almost poetic. Television has captured and added to these romanticized visions with plenty of coverage for significant takeoffs. Stephen Colbert narrated the event for a Unity22 Livestream. The musician Khalid dropped a new song for the event. And the TV reporters present spoke about the feelings of seeing the first private space flight.
�On multiple levels, I have to think that Richard Branson right now is floating on air.�-Mark Strassman, CBS News Senior National Correspondent, upon watching Branson’s spaceflight
Other reporters said they had goosebumps or felt this was the dawn of a new era of space exploration. Rachel Crane, CNN‘s innovation and space correspondent talked about how this was a generational event and something she would remember forever. However, like all television spectacles, the event featured drama and controversy.
Did Branson qualify for space flight?
One question that many broadcasts raised was whether the journey qualified as a space flight. There are different definitions of where “space” begins. US agencies primarily say 50 miles above the surface of the Earth. The rocket passed that benchmark. However, the leading international organization and global authority, the F�d�ration A�ronautique Internationale, sets the bar 12 miles higher. Branson failed to reach that mark. Some broadcasts alluded to the shortness of the trip. Some felt that the event was for the publicity alone since Branson failed to reach orbit or “true space.” The New York Times described Branson’s weightlessness as “apparent,” indicating a degree of skepticism.
The future of private space flights
Regardless of whether you believe that he reached space, this is a milestone event. Branson became the first billionaire to reach space via private flight. And it appears there are many to come. This could be the beginning of a new era. We do not criticize the first Mac for its limited functions. We think of it as the beginning of one of the greatest technological progressions of all time. So too will this flight be remembered. Sure, it wasn’t very long, nor did it reach very high. Sure, it was partly a publicity stunt. But ultimately, it was the dawn of an era, and that cannot be forgotten.
Jeff Bezos appears to be the next billionaire in line for space travel. His Blue Origin flight is scheduled for July 20. Similarly to Branson, the goal is to reach the edge of space and experience weightlessness. His SpaceX project is also in the midst of developing rockets for short trips to space for public consumption. So the future of space travel appears bright. And Branson’s journey was the first step on the path to normalized and privatized space travel.