Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was ready to hit the headlines by taking a space trip later this month. He will be part of Blue Origin’s first manned mission when it launches its New Shepard rocket later this month on July 20th. However, Bezos was recently picked up by Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, who made a surprise announcement that he will be aboard his company’s VSS Unity ship tomorrow, July 11th.
This seems to have sparked some animosity between the two companies, depending on who will make it into space first. But Blue Origin recently argued in a tweet posted yesterday, Friday, July 9th that Virgin Galactic’s plans are technically not considered a trip into space.
The question is how high each company wants its aircraft to fly and where the official limit for space is. Most of the world uses the Kármán line as the designated end of the earth’s atmosphere and as the beginning of space, which is 100 kilometers above average sea level. However, organizations in the United States such as the Air Force assume that the beginning of space is 50 miles above the average sea level, which is about 80 km.
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity has flown to a maximum altitude of 90 km, which is above the space launch defined by the US Air Force, but below the Kármán Line. Hence, some people argue that those who fly the VSS Unity have been in space while others say it is actually a suborbital flight.
On the other side of the equation, Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle climbed over 100 km, so it was undeniably in space. And the company argued in an infographic shared on Twitter that its vehicle was superior to the VSS Unity:
From the start, New Shepard was designed to fly over the Kármán Line, so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name. For 96% of the world’s population, space begins at an altitude of 100 km on the internationally recognized Kármán line. pic.twitter.com/QRoufBIrUJ
– Blue Origin (@blueorigin) July 9, 2021
It should be remembered that the definition of what constitutes height as “space” is arbitrary. There is no clear point where the atmosphere ends and space begins.
Both the crews of the VSS Unity and the New Shepard are brought to great heights, experience weightlessness for a few minutes and are then brought back to the ground. Neither ship will go into orbit, and neither Branson nor Bezos will be doing any scientific or engineering work.
However, there are a few key differences between the two vehicles that you should keep in mind. The New Shepard is essentially a type of sounding rocket, a well-developed and well-understood technology that agencies like NASA have been using for decades. The VSS Unity is a spacecraft that is a more complex technology that can maneuver in the atmosphere. Landings are also different, with the VSS Unity sliding back to earth to land on a runway while the New Shepard falling back to earth with a parachute-slowed descent.