Did Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Flight Really Reach Space?

Richard Branson made history on July 11, 2021, when he and a crew of four other specialists made it to space onboard the VSS unity:

Or did they?

According to online criticism, the jury is out.

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What is Virgin Galactic?

For those of you who are not avid space industry enthusiasts, here is a little brief explanation of Virgin Galactic and their Unity 22 test:

Virgin Galactic is a private space company owned by Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin Group. Yes, this is the same Virgin Group that owns Virgin Airlines.

Richard Branson founded the company back in 2004, with the aim of being the first Space Tourism company. And over the last two decades, Virgin Galactic has been working to make that dream a reality.

The Unity 22 Test

At the center of Virgin Galactic are its two main Spacecrafts. A twin-boom aircraft called White Knight Two is used during the booster stage. This is the aircraft we see carrying the sub-orbital shuttle. White Knight Two helps the main ‘spacecraft’ reach launching altitude, which is about 50,000 feet.

The second craft is an air-launched sub-orbital plane called Space Ship Two. This is the vehicle that actually carries the crew to space. And after it completes its flight, the aircraft glides back to earth and lands like a conventional aircraft on a runway.

The Space Ship Two plane in the Unity 22 test was called the VSS Unity, the test being named after the aircraft, and 22 means that it is the 22nd test.

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The Karmin Line Dispute

Most of the criticism revolves around if Virgin Galactic was actually high enough to be considered in ‘Space’:

The Unity 22 test flight was planned to reach an altitude of at least 50 miles or about 80 km. Reaching 50 miles was important because the Federal Aviation Administration defines anything above 50 miles as space. In fact, the FAA has previously granted astronaut wings to Virgin Galactic crew members that had flown up to 50 miles.

But many disagree and argue that the Karman Line is the legitimate boundary of space and since the Karman line starts at 62 miles (or 100 km), Virgin Galactic’s claim of reaching space is being questioned.

And this is not a new debate; physicists and engineers have for years debated on this exact topic. Some experts agree with the Karman Line convention, while others counter that there is no scientific basis for the Karman Line. 

They argue that the Karman Line is just a popular convention to mark space because 100 km is a clean round number.

The Competitors Opinion

The criticism has not just been from impartial parties. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, who also has a planned test flight, is a direct competitor of Virgin Galactic in the Space Tourism industry. They plan to go beyond 100 km in a test flight with Jeff Bezos on board.

And when Blue Origin’s Chief Executive Bob Smith was asked for a comment on the Virgin Galactic flight, he did not shy away from throwing some shade at Virgin Galactic.

We wish him a great and safe flight, but they’re not flying above the Karman Line and it’s a very different experience.

Bob Smith, Blue Origin Chief Executive. Quote from the New York Times

Whether or not Sir Richard Branson made it to ‘space’, there is no denying this test flight was a great achievement not just for Virgin Galactic but humankind’s quest to conquer the stars.

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