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Recently, there has been much attention on the fact that billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson were passengers in very high-altitude flights. Reputed media outlets discussed these events as "space flights" and framed them as some kind of technological exploit. As far as I know, both passengers never reached space, and the basic technology of their aircrafts is many decades old.

Is this all just advertising, or do these events carry serious implications for astronautics? Am I simply mistaken (very likely - I'm a complete layman) or have large parts of the media fallen for (or bought into) a publicity stunt?

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    $\begingroup$ " or have large parts of the media fallen for (or bought into) a publicity stunt?" the goal of most media sources, in particular "science" journalism, is to get clicks and advertising dollars. They a/b test headlines of events exactly for this purpose. $\endgroup$
    – eps
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 4:41
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    $\begingroup$ @eps not everything is tabloid though. The apparent extent of hype in the reputed press was surprising. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 5:34
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    $\begingroup$ Why are they discussed in terms of space travel? Because they claim that's what it was. There isn't some clear line between Earth's atmosphere and space. Where space starts is subjective. The more significant question is whether they did anything new that the space agencies weren't already doing or at least aware of, and whether this would be useful for traveling further into space. $\endgroup$
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 9:09
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    $\begingroup$ I'm voting to close this as opinion based, there's no actual answer that can be backed up by evidence. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 12:43
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    $\begingroup$ @GdD it's always a challenge to demonstrate that nobody on Earth could possibly have an "actual answer that can be backed up by evidence" just because we can't think of one off-hand. voted to leave open because blocking future good answers is counterproductive in this case. There are two good answers already, perhaps there can be an even better one posted if it's not blocked. There are also some low-quality answers but SE gives us other less scorched Earth tools to deal with them than shutting down the whole page. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Sep 1, 2021 at 23:23

4 Answers 4

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Did they reach space?

Branson: yes
The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo class craft "VS Unity" flew Branson up to 53.5 miles (86 kilometres). This altitude is considered "space" by the US air force, and nobody else. It is above most of the atmosphere, and does provide a nice view of the Earth.

Bezos: yes
The Blue Origin New Shepard class craft "RSS First Step" flew Bezos up to 107.05 km. This is considered "space" by the whole world, but most relevantly by the FAI ( Fédération Aéronautique Internationale), which is the globally acknowledged body that governs records in aeronautics and space. This altitude is over the Kármán line at 100km, which is the accepted altitude where space begins.

But did they really go to space?
Sort of. They both flew suborbital hops, neither vehicle is designed to even attempt to achieve orbit.

Do these events carry serious implications for astronautics
Sort of. The BO New Shepard rocket has been used multiple times to perform very shortduration experiments in space. However this is nothing new as mankind has been launching suborbital, Kármán line crossing sounding rockets since the early 1940's. The New Shepard does provide a very gentle recovery ability which very few if any sounding rockets can provide, and provides a much more benign environment on the launch too, avoiding the punishing accelerations and vibrations common with smaller rockets.

So what is the primary purpose of these flights?
Publicity.
And tourism! They are selling tickets for flights on these vehicles for several hundred thousand dollars a seat, and people are queuing to buy them.

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe it should also be noted that both of these companies (although Virgin Galactic only tangentially with Virgin Orbit) are also working on actual space travel, and the success/failure of these missions thus has ripple effects for the company. BO, notably, is also working on the BE-4 engines which are slated to be used in ULA's upcoming Vulcan rocket, and if the company were to collapse in on itself, this would likely hamper a pro-space agenda. $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Commented Aug 30, 2021 at 12:53
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    $\begingroup$ Worth noting that the standing record for the first two Americans in space (Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom) were both suborbital flights in Mercury/Redstone capsules. They both went decidedly higher (~100nm) than Bezos and Branson, but the essence of the missions were fundamentally the same. $\endgroup$
    – J...
    Commented Aug 30, 2021 at 18:35
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    $\begingroup$ An important point also is that these two guys didn't come from some stringent selection process. They're pretty much just two random blokes with no particular relevant experience or training who decided to go to space so they bought a ticket and went. They're the prototypical tourists, proving that space travel is no longer just for highly trained astronauts, but for everybody. $\endgroup$
    – TooTea
    Commented Aug 30, 2021 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ @PcMan Sorry, I see that "proving" was a wrong choice of a word. My point is that when you want to market a space tourism business, first thing you do is take a trip yourself to show the masses that you trust your technology and so can they. "Eating your own dog food" kinda thing. All the guys you mentioned flew on an established launch system, not on something their company just designed. $\endgroup$
    – TooTea
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 11:27
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    $\begingroup$ @PcMan Shuttleworth spent an entire year in training for that "space tourism" flight. He was more of a self-funded astronaut than a space tourist. $\endgroup$
    – J...
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 11:47
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Is this all just advertising, or do these events carry serious implications for astronautics? Am I simply mistaken (very likely - I'm a complete layman) or have large parts of the media fallen for (or bought into) a publicity stunt?

The reason these are important is that these are privately developed and funded vehicles. Yes, SpaceX is privately owned, but SpaceX also got a NASA contract, which helped them to get started. While Blue Origin is developing engines for NASA, the New Shepherd rocket was mostly funded by Jeff Bezos.

This is also the realization of the promise that the Space Shuttle program never delivered on: civilian space travel

Aspiring space tourists should first focus on flying either Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin. These flights are easier to do as they only go to the edge of space and will be significantly cheaper. If everything goes according to plan, space tourism can become a reality in 2022.

Remember, the first true space tourist Dennis Tito paid $20M for his seat on the Soyuz and trip to the ISS. Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX will all be doing that for far less.

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    $\begingroup$ Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic aren't going anywhere near the ISS or even into orbit at all. So they are not doing "that for far less". $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 30, 2021 at 21:53
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    $\begingroup$ "SpaceX is privately owned, but SpaceX also got a NASA contract, which helped them to get started. While Blue Origin is developing engines for NASA," So SpaceX is privately owned and has NASA funding. Blue Origin is privately owned and has NASA funding. I'm not sure the point you're trying to make is clear, especially since SpaceX isn't even in the question. $\endgroup$
    – NPSF3000
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 4:18
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    $\begingroup$ Space travel seems to be a huge exaggeration for a suborbital hop. This looks like the ferris wheel ride of space travel rather than the cruise. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 5:40
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    $\begingroup$ @henning Well, when you step off the Ferris wheel you can boast "I was above the trees!" And for old men, the Ferris wheel is ample excitement and it does get you above the trees. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 9:08
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    $\begingroup$ @henning People still pay for a Ferris wheel ride. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 10:29
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There are no serious implications for astronautics the science.

There are serious implications for the space tourism market, namely they're hard-to-fake signals that it's safe enough for passengers. We should all favor that market if we hope to one day stop subsidizing space travel but still have space travel. It's not without downsides though, and many reasonable people don't like it.

As for "real space" vs "not real space", well, they were not the first two with height-based space claims. Are we going to reevaluate all of history, or judge just them by the new, stricter standard? It's true that they didn't reach orbit or any of a number of milestones one can think of, but it's false that they pretended to. They went very high and called it space, supported by standards that predated them.

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They​ both entered such trajectories that when the craft was not propelled by rockets but was freely moving under inertia the people inside it experienced weightlessness. That is achieved in the "vomit comet" only when the craft is guided through the air along just the right path rather than allowed to move freely by itself.

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    $\begingroup$ "The both entered such orbits" – Neither vehicle ever came even close to entering orbit, nor are they even designed to attempt that. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 1, 2021 at 9:18
  • $\begingroup$ @JörgWMittag : I'm not convinced that the meaning of the word "orbit" can only be what you seem to suggest. But I've changed the word to "trajectory". $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 1, 2021 at 18:24
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    $\begingroup$ @JörgWMittag To be picky, if you take a running jump you are in orbit around the earth, with the centre of the earth at one focus. It's just that it's an orbit with its apogee at $R_E+1m$ and its perigee very far underground. So not a very exciting orbit. Hmm: I wonder if there's a definition of ‘orbit’ which mandates that there be empty space along the entire path. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 2, 2021 at 17:18

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