I continue to be awestruck at Sir Richard Branson’s gift for hype. On Monday he rolled out Virgin Galactic’s “SpaceShipTwo”, dutifully described by Wired magazine as “the first commercial spacecraft” and “the first commercial spaceship”. This must be galling for the folks at the spaceflight research firm SpaceX. In July of this year, to little fanfare, they successfully put a Malaysian satellite into low earth orbit using a privately designed and built unmanned rocket, the Falcon 1. This is definitely commerce, and RazakSat is definitely up there in space, bleeping away in Malay. Surely everything else is Bransonian semantics?
SpaceShipTwo, despite the name, is an airplane–a very sophisticated and impressive airplane, designed to make brief suborbital hops after being carried aloft by another airplane. Branson’s hundreds of more-money-than-they-know-what-to-do-with customers are buying the aviation experience of a lifetime, one that nobody returns from unmoved. But it will be an aviation experience. “Space” is defined in custom, international law, and Virgin marketing literature as “high enough that airplanes mostly don’t work anymore”. To get there as an airplane passenger, by virtue of a few seconds of rocket boost tacked onto a conventional flight, seems a little like a technical cheat—the equivalent of trying to join the Mile High Club by oneself in the john.
Branson likes to crack wise about the old-fashionedness and inelegance of efforts to commercialize space by means of brute, old-fashioned multi-stage rocketry. In fact, the seventh American in “space” was a civilian badass named Joe Walker, who got there more or less by the method Branson is using. Like Walker, Branson’s passengers will experience “weightlessness” only for a few seconds at the top of their journey, for exactly the same physical reason that a bungee jumper experiences it at the apex of his rebound. Virgin Galactic continues to suggest that its research program will one day progress beyond flirtations with the Kármán line to earth orbit, where the real commercial, defence, and scientific applications are. But those plans are vague, and, perhaps tellingly, SpaceShipThree is no longer scheduled to be an orbital craft.
Meanwhile, SpaceX may be just days—hours, even—from testing its Falcon 9 launch platform, which is capable of carrying a manned capsule all the way into orbit and supporting International Space Station resupply missions. They’ve got their “spacecraft” built already, and will be testing its orbital capacities in the new year. Branson has a stirring line of blarney that obviously appeals to adventurers weaned on the sonorous, mercifully equation-free poetry of Carl Sagan. But we hardcore nerds know where the action really is.