The entrepreneur blazed past his rival Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, to reach the edge of space, by breaching the 86 km above mean sea level mark before returning to Earth. He was greeted with fanfare from technologists and space enthusiasts who refer to his epoch-making journey as the start of the era of commercial space flights.
Branson is not alone in his aspirations. On July 20, Bezos is set to blast off on his starship enterprise Blue Origin’s Blue Shepard vehicle in time to coincide with the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Bezos affirmed he will go one step ahead of Branson by breaching the Karman line, an imaginary line located 100 km over mean sea level and the point of the beginning of outer space. The clash of such egos has prompted experts to step in and question whether such attempts can be truly referred to as space travel.
One of the critics is astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who dismissed Branson’s claim of space travel. According to Tyson, NASA had performed a suborbital routine 60 years ago with Alan Shepard who took off from Cape Canaveral and landed in the ocean. Tyson used a globe to explain that distance-wise, a spacecraft’s orbit and the International Space Station would be about 1 cm away from the Earth (surface of the globe) whereas the moon would be over a metre away. What Branson had comparatively accomplished was reaching just 2 mm over the surface. Summing up the view from the top as a visual effect, Tyson said that getting into orbit takes about 8 minutes while a journey to the moon takes three days – and that possibly could be called space travel.
This new-age space race has also ignited a conversation around the line demarcating air space and outer space. Following the launch of the Russian Sputnik 1 in 1957, five multilateral treaties were negotiated during the thick of the Cold War. Among these treaties was the 1967 Outer Space Treaty which said space should be a borderless expanse and that all countries have the right to freely investigate the far reaches in scientific pursuit.
However, now that space exploration has been decentralised, and moved out of the control of international governments, into the hands of private corporations, the need for a regulatory framework that clearly defines the limits of where airspace ends and outer space begins might be felt. There are questions about passenger and third-party liabilities too that must now be considered as currently there are no options for space tourists to seek compensation in the case of injury or death.
As per estimates, the potential value of space tourism could touch $3 bn annually. Virgin Galactic is planning to kick off commercial flights to suborbital space next year. So far it has sold 600 tickets at a price of $2,50,000 (Rs 1.8 cr) each and has drawn the likes Tom Hanks, Lady Gaga and Elon Musk whose SpaceX has launched three astronaut missions into space and brought down the cost of space travel by millions of dollars.
For developed nations with a propensity for risk-taking and adventure, it might open up a whole new market populated by millionaires with disposable income to boot. However, as far as ordinary citizens are concerned, a recreational space tour is not going to be an affordable holiday option anytime soon. Experts believe it will be decades before such indulgences become pocket friendly. Perhaps, one of the biggest takeaways from Branson’s spaceflight is the fact that it’s no longer necessary to be exceptionally brilliant for someone to nurture the dream of venturing into space. All it would take is the price of an admission ticket.