Sir Richard Branson has charm, charisma and money...lots and lots of money. He also has a dream. He says that since he was a child, he wanted to go into space. On Sunday morning, some say he came within spitting distance of making his dream a reality when his space plane hit a distance of 53.5 miles above the Earth. NASA considers 50 miles above sea level as the boundary of where space begins. Some other agencies and countries consider the real boundary to be the Karman Line, 62 miles up, as the boundary of space.
That certainly isn’t taking anything away from Branson or his company, Virgin Galactic. A successful suborbital flight designed and built by any private company is an amazing achievement and a neat piece of technology.
Branson isn’t the only billionaire spending money to advance commercial space flight. In less than two weeks, Amazon founder (and richest man in the world) Jeff Bezos is scheduled to take a similar trip in a ship financed and built by his company, Blue Origin.
Both companies seem to have figured out all the angles for short, suborbital flights. Suborbital flight is cool but it isn’t the same as actually putting pilots or passengers into orbit...much less heading out to the moon or the planets.
And last, but certainly not least is Elon Musk’s SpaceX company which has, in some ways, outpaced both Branson’s and Bezos’ companies. SpaceX has been delivering supplies to and from the Space Station for almost 10 years and last year, began ferrying astronauts back and forth to the shuttle. That requires a whole different level of technology than either rival company has yet displayed. It requires the ability to actually orbit the planet, dock with the space station and then return to the surface, without burning up in the atmosphere.
That doesn’t mean that Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin can’t and won’t catch up. They probably will, and they’ll face major competition from upstart companies that none of us have even heard of at this early stage of the game. Space is big and there are opportunities our there that we haven’t even imagined yet.
So far, space exploration has fallen to the government and the shift to private enterprise taking the lead isn’t surprising or unexpected. For one thing, it’s an expensive undertaking and the prospects for a speedy return on the investment isn’t something tax payers are going to hold still for. The main reason for our government taking the reins in the 50’s and 60’s was the notion of national pride and beating the Russians to the moon. Once we accomplished that goal, interest in the space program quickly began to dry up.
There is no doubt that Musk, Bezos and Branson are all visionaries and they share of dream of furthering space travel. But each of them is a sharp and astute businessman and I suspect they see a great payoff from their efforts. Nor will they be the only ones who seek a fortune in the sky.