The billionaire race to reach (one definition of) space has been won by Richard Branson. Branson was one of six aboard the VSS Unity as it flew 86 kilometers (53.5 miles) above the New Mexico Desert before gliding down to a runway landing.
By now, thousands of people have made it to space, and many have orbited multiple times – in addition to the few who have gone much further to circle or land on the Moon. Branson’s record is to be the first person to do so in a spaceship he owns (or at least is owned by a company he heads). At 71, he’s also the second oldest person to reach space, after John Glenn’s 1998 trip at the age of 77.
“To the next generation of dreamers: if we can do this, just imagine what you can do,” Branson said, while fellow passengers played with the experience of weightlessness behind him.
The flight lasted just 15 minutes – similar to the short hop that made Alan Shepard the first American in space. Naturally, for a company selling quarter-of-a-million-dollar tourist flights to space, it was broadcast live for the world to watch. Branson, the crew, and other passengers experienced several minutes of weightlessness.
Previous Virgin flights carried crews of two or three, some of them ending in disaster. Branson initially intended to let others be Virgin’s first four passengers/comfort assessors, before going himself later this year. His schedule changed seemingly in an effort to gazump Jeff Bezos, who will be aboard Blue Origin's New Shepard when it flies on July 20. Branson denied the change was made to beat Bezos. Meanwhile, Bezos will fly slightly higher, crossing the Karman Line – which is more universally accepted as dividing the atmosphere from space.
Almost certainly there will be a scientific reward for the billions of dollars some of the world’s richest men are spending to write their names into the record books and create a space tourism industry. The technology developed will make it easier and cheaper to launch satellites and astronauts that will expand our knowledge of the universe.
The need to power satellites gave a kickstart to solar energy and the instruments the carried have saved countless lives, for example through better weather and climate forecasting. No doubt other advances will come from devices that only reach space as a result of falling launch prices.
Moreover, Branson’s venture in the other direction, to the bottom of Belize's Blue Hole returned valuable, if depressing, information.
Nevertheless, few scientists would choose this as the best way to invest billions of dollars in the future of science. When hundreds of people a day are dying for lack of oxygen in hospital wards across the world, and access to food and medicines going backward, the flaunting of wealth the billionaire space race involves has struck many as particularly obscene.
The capacity of a few individuals to spend so much appears to many as emblematic of wealth inequality. Meanwhile, more than 600 people haven't blinked at paying more than most of the world earns in a lifetime for a few minutes of zero gravity. Reportedly, that includes Elon Musk, who has apparently chosen to ride with Virgin Galactic rather than (or before) going aboard with his own company SpaceX, which is currently focused on more practical missions.
Unlike Bezos, Branson hasn’t attracted a petition to not let him return – but some are making gentler suggestions in light of this zero-gravity flex.