Virgin Galactic just rocketed its first passenger past the edge of space - but Jeff Bezos says its astronauts have 'asterisks' next to their names

virgin galactic spaceshiptwo sst vss unity second spaceflight 50 miles marsscientific trumbull studiosSpaceShipTwo, or VSS Unity, launches toward the edge of space for the second time on February 22, 2018.Virgin Galactic; MarsScientific.com/Trumbull Studios

  • Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company founded by Richard Branson, launched its first passenger past the edge of space on Friday.
  • Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic's chief astronaut instructor, was the passenger. She was accompanied by two pilots.
  • SpaceShipTwo, named "VSS Unity," rocketed the crew to nearly 56 miles above Earth, providing a few minutes of weightlessness.
  • But Jeff Bezos, who's starting his own space tourism company, Blue Origin, questioned the capabilities of Virgin Galactic earlier this week.
  • Bezos said vehicles should fly above 62 miles - an internationally recognized boundary of space - to avoid leaving "asterisks" next to any space traveler's name.

Richard Branson's company, Virgin Galactic, has flown its first passenger on a rocket-powered spaceship.

The flight is part of a decades-long effort by multiple companies to usher in an era of frequent and safe suborbital space tourism, in which vehicles can fly high enough to briefly enter space, provide minutes of zero-gravity, and then return to the ground.

On Friday, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo vehicle, named "VSS Unity," did just that. Unity lifted off the ground under the wings of a double-bodied airplane mothership called WhiteKnightTwo. Once at the proper altitude, the vehicle dropped from its mothership, ignited a rubber-fuel rocket engine, and soared high above Earth.

Unity accelerated to about three times the speed of sound and reached an altitude of 55.87 miles (89.9 km), according to Virgin Galactic. That's about 10 times higher than a typical passenger jet's cruising altitude. It's the second flight to puncture the boundary that the US government considers to be the edge of space.

Virgin Galactic's first passenger wasn't a tourist who bought a $250,000 ticket, though - it was Beth Moses, the company's chief astronaut instructor, who tested the crew cabin and experienced several minutes of weightlessness inside. She is the first person to fly as a passenger aboard a commercial spaceship.

"The crew enjoyed extraordinary views of Earth from the black skies of space and, during several minutes of weightlessness, Beth floated free to complete a number of cabin evaluation test points," Virgin Galactic said in a press release. "The human validation of data previously collected via sensors, and the live testing of other physical elements of the cabin interior, are fundamental to the provision of a safe but enjoyable customer experience."

However, another billionaire interested in space tourism - Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the aerospace company Blue Origin - questioned the capabilities of Virgin Galactic earlier this week.

"One of the issues that Virgin Galactic will have to address, eventually, is that they are not flying above the Kármán line. Not yet. The vehicle isn't quite capable," Bezos said during an event at the Wings Club in New York on Tuesday.

Bezos explained that not going beyond this point would leave "asterisks" next to space flyers' names.

What the Kármán line is and why Blue Orgin is targeting it

virgin galactic spaceshiptwo ss2 vss unity second spaceflight cockpit 56 milesInside the SpaceShipTwo or VSS Unity rocket ship as it flew near the edge of space on February 22, 2019. Beth Moses (center) was the company's first passenger.Virgin Galactic

There is no official, globally recognized boundary for where Earth ends and space begins. In fact, just this month researchers said the outer fringes of Earth's atmosphere stretch more than 150,000 miles beyond the moon.

Still, Earth's air pressure drops off dramatically at high altitudes, and wing-based lift begins to peter out if a vehicle gets dozens of miles high. NASA and the US Air Force consider the demarcation between pilots and astronauts to be at an altitude of 50 miles (80 kilometers).

But "for most of the world ... the edge of space is defined as 100 kilometers" or 62 miles high, Bezos said on Tuesday during a conversation moderated by Jeff Foust of Space News.

That boundary is named after Theodore von Kármán. In his book "The Wind and Beyond," Kármán says that above 57 miles (92 kilometers) in altitude, "there is no longer any air to contribute lift." The World Air Sports Federation has taken this line 5 miles (8 kilometers) higher to mark the spot where space begins.

Read more: The space between Earth and the moon is mind-boggling. This graphic reveals just how big it is - and what's out there.

"I think that one of the things that [Virgin Galactic] will have to figure out, is how to get above the Kármán line. We fly to 106 kilometers" or 66 miles, Bezos said.

By "we" Bezos was referring to Blue Origin, which has developed an autonomous, fully reusable rocket-and-space-capsule system called New Shepard.

new shepard reusable rocket launch 2016 blue originBlue Origin's reusable New Shepard suborbital rocket launches toward space in 2016.Blue Origin

The squat rocket launches the capsule on a ballistic (up-and-down) trajectory, then returns to Earth and lands, allowing it to be refueled. Meanwhile, the sleek crew capsule continues flying upward, providing about 4 minutes of weightlessness for passengers.

Read more: SpaceX's list of competitors is growing - here are 9 futuristic rockets in the pipeline for the new space race

The reason New Shepard was designed to pierce the internationally recognized boundary of space, Bezos said, was to remove any doubts about status.

"We've always had as our mission that we wanted to fly above the Kármán line, because we didn't want there to be any asterisks next to your name about whether you're an astronaut," he said.

Bezos added that Blue Origin plans to launch its first people on New Shepard imminently.

"This is the first time I've ever been saying, 'this year,'" he said. "For a few years, I've been saying, 'next year.'"

A series of firsts for suborbital space tourism

virgin galactic spaceshiptwo whiteknighttwo airplane ss2 wk2 vss unity second spaceflight 50 milesSpaceShipTwo, or VSS Unity, lifts off the ground attached to its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo. The small rocket ship launched toward the edge of space for a second time on February 22, 2019.Virgin Galactic

A representative of Virgin Galactic did not issue a response to Bezos' comments in time for publication.

For its part, though, Branson's space tourism outfit is claiming to rack up firsts.

"Today's flight notched several additional firsts for the industry," Virgin Galactic said in its release. "The flight was the first time that a non-pilot flew on board a commercial spaceship to space, and it was the first time that a crew member floated freely without restraints in weightlessness in space onboard a commercial spaceship; it was the first time that three people flew to space on a commercial spaceship, and Dave Mackay became the first Scottish-born astronaut."

The flight also marked the company's fifth back-to-back supersonic flight of a SpaceShipTwo vehicle, which is a welcome shift for the company. (In October 2014, one of its pilots died and another was seriously injured during an in-flight breakup of the "VSS Enterprise" SpaceShipTwo vehicle.)

"Flying the same vehicle safely to space and back twice in a little over two months, while at the same time expanding the flight envelope, is testament to the unique capability we have built up," Branson said in the release.

He added: "Having Beth fly in the cabin today, starting to ensure that our customer journey is as flawless as the spaceship itself, brings a huge sense of anticipation and excitement to all of us here who are looking forward to experiencing space for ourselves. The next few months promise to be the most thrilling yet."

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