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Why Richard Branson’s Spaceflight Is a Very Big Deal

5 minute read

Depending on how you look at things, Richard Branson did not accomplish terribly much this morning. Yes, the billionaire co-founder of Virgin Galactic woke up intending to go to space today, and yes, he went. Along with two pilots and three other passengers, Branson lifted off aboard his VSS Unity spacecraft shortly before 9:00 a.m. MT, soared 86 km (53.5 miles) up, arced into space for four minutes of weightlessness and then glided gently back to Earth, landing on a runway in the New Mexico Desert.

Fine. Noted. But history will recall that the flight occurred more than 60 years after Alan Shepard flew the same popgun trajectory aboard his Freedom 7 Mercury capsule, becoming the first American in space. Even that flight looked small compared to the journey of the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin, who, less than a month earlier, became the first human being in space, flying his Vostok 1 spacecraft through a full orbit around the Earth. So Branson duplicated Shepard’s feat three generations later? Fine, again. Noted, again.

But that, of course, is the stingy view. The churl’s view. What Branson achieved today was in fact a very big thing.

Space exploration has always been a different breed entirely from the other kinds of exploring human beings have done. We built boats that could sail across oceans, and then airplanes that could fly across them. We laid railway tracks and paved roadways that spanned continents. We applauded ourselves when we accomplished those things, and we deserved to applaud ourselves. Then, having done them, we looked for the next natural frontier to explore. Space beckoned—and that, we knew, would be an order of magnitude harder.

The physics of space travel are a non-negotiable thing. Want to orbit the Earth? Fine, but be prepared to figure out a way to achieve speeds up to 28,160 km/h (17,500 mph). Want to escape Earth’s orbit and light out for the moon? That’ll require 40,200 km/h (25,000 mph). You’d better be prepared to tolerate the g-forces too—as much 8 Gs, depending on the profile you’re flying. And unlike those sailors and railroad travelers of long ago, you’re going to a place where there’s no air and where the temperatures can fluctuate from 200 degrees F° below zero to 200 above, depending on whether you’re in the glare of the sun or in the shadow of the Earth or the moon.

For that reason, we sent only our finest, fittest, brightest, bravest to make the journeys. Test pilots, PhDs, military officers, hand selected from tens of thousands of applicants. In the six decades since Gagarin and Shepard flew, fewer than 600 people have made that cut.

And then, today, all of that changed. Branson and others—including Elon Musk (founder of SpaceX) and Jeff Bezos (founder of Blue Origin)—have long promised that their private companies would lead to the democratization of space, making the experience of leaving the Earth something available to more than just the elite. All three companies were founded in the early years of the century, and all three men have thus been making that promise for going on two decades. Today, the promise was kept.

Much ink and at least a little bile were spilled in the past week about the supposedly bitter race to space between Branson and Bezos, as well as over the fact that Branson’s VSS Unity would not cross the 100 km (62 mi.) threshold that most consider the official boundary to space, while Bezos’s New Shepard passenger spacecraft will. But yesterday, Bezos wished Branson his best in an Instagram post. This morning, Musk went that one better, having breakfast with Branson before he left Earth. Feud? None here—at least not for public consumption.

That’s how it should be. Over the decades, space has unfolded for us as a series of milestones. The first person in space; the first rendezvous in space; the first walk in space; the first trip to the moon. Each one of them was the historical equivalent of a chemical phase change—when water, say, grows hot enough to sublime into steam or cold enough to harden into ice. First it was one thing—then it was another. So too with our space accomplishments. First we were a species that had not done a Great Space Thing, and then we were a species that had. And unlike the ice or the steam that can always melt or condense back into water, the things we achieved could never be un-achieved.

What Branson accomplished was another phase change. Yesterday we had never flown a civilian, commercial crew to space. Today we’ve done it. There will be more similar flights, including the all-civilian Inspiration4 mission set for September. There is no going back.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated where the VSS Unity spacecraft landed. It was in the New Mexico desert near Las Cruces, not the Mojave desert.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com