The Branson and Bezos Adventure

It’s a bird!…No, it’s a plane!…No, it’s Bezos and Branson in their game of one-upmanship of who would become the world’s first bonafide private astronaut (sounds a lot like private pilots). And, guess what? It is still not clear even after their respective successful flights. A lot of the controversy depends on definitions and technicalities and who’s defining them. One of the technical terms that are doing the rounds after their flights is “ Karman Line”. Named after Hungarian-American engineer Theodore von Karman, it is defined as the boundary between atmosphere and space. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale sets it at roughly 100 kilometres above mean sea level. Now, some aeronautical agencies often do not recognize the Karman Line as the valid definition for ‘edge of space’ and many have their own respective boundaries set for defining the edge of space. NASA, for example, sets it at 50 miles (80 kilometres) above mean sea level. Any flight above 80 kilometres is considered by NASA to be a spaceflight. However, even within NASA, this metric has often stayed inconsistent and sometimes its definition was motivated by Soviet and American achievements during the space race in the early 1960s. But, most of the world followed (and still follows) the Karman Line as the defined boundary between space and atmosphere.

So, what’s the fuss? Why such ballyhoo surrounding the Branson and Bezos flights? The shifting definition of space boundary is at the crux of this elephantine PR stunt by both of them.

According to NASA’s definition, Branson in his Virgin Galactic Flight 22 (on 11th July 2021) crossed the set boundary between space and atmosphere, hence he is eligible of being called an astronaut. However, Bezos marketed his Blue Origin flight named New Shepard (after Alan Shepard) as the true flight to space because it was designed to achieve a maximum altitude of 107 kilometres, which it did on 20th July 2021, with four passengers in it, Jeff Bezos being one of them.

So, who among them is a true astronaut? Bezos or Branson? Who is eligible for the famed astronaut wings? Well, the media brouhaha is handing both of them virtual astronaut wings, but there have been some dissenting voices. The most prominent among them has been famed astrophysicist and popular science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson. He disagreed with Branson’s assessment of what can be called a spaceflight.

But, I’d like to go deeper in the exploration of the definition of an astronaut. Tyson’s disagreement stems from the technical definition of space and suborbital flights (both Branson and Bezos did not achieve orbital velocity) but for me the heart of the matter is what it means to be an astronaut.

In the classical sense of the word, an astronaut is a person who travels or has travelled to space. But, for the sake of clarity in this cluttered issue, we need to take a closer look at the jargon. An astronaut, from a utilitarian standpoint, is not just a person who travels to space but one who has been trained and equipped to do so. So, there is an element of learning and training involved. Bezos received 14 hours of training over two days. So that should make him an astronaut — right?

Usually, to be an applicant in the NASA astronaut program, one has to complete his Master’s degree from the STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). On top of that, they need to have either two years of relevant professional experience or logged at least 1000 hours as a pilot-in-command of any jet-powered aircraft. After successful completion of these requirements, they must pass a gruelling physical evaluation before beginning the actual two-year-long basic training course in which they are taught to pilot an aircraft and given a Russian language course so that they can communicate with Moscow mission control.

Did Bezos undergo all this? — No. Did Branson? — I am not sure what training did Branson undergo but I am certain he did not receive training in piloting his own spacecraft because he hired professional pilots to fly his vehicle.

Should we call them astronauts? The definition also hints that an astronaut is given a mission profile for his/her mission — jobs that he/she must complete in order for the mission to be successful. If an astronaut’s mission profile is to ‘sit back and enjoy the ride’, then obviously — Branson and Bezos are astronauts.

Then, it puts them on the same page as the pioneer astronauts from the 1960s right up to the people currently residing in the space station. Herein lies my problem. As Dr Malcolm’s argument from Jurassic Park — “If I may… Um, I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here, it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you’re selling it, you wanna sell it”, Bezos and Branson are acting as discount versions modern-day John Hammond sans the charm that came with Attenborough’s portrayal of the character. They did not acquire the knowledge of space travel through discipline but brought their way into it in an obscene display of wealth. Since I do not possess $450,000 in my bank account, I won’t be able to know whether Branson uses “spared no expense” as his pre-recorded catchphrase throughout the flight.

Let me try a thought experiment to clarify the dangers of this so-called “space tourism” endeavour.

You have bought your ticket onto a spaceflight with Bezos and Branson as your co-passengers. The capsule acquires orbital velocity and reaches its designated orbit. Suddenly, the capsule decides to go full Gemini 8. Would you be comfortable with Bezos and Branson at your during that time or would you pray for Bezos and Branson to somehow magically transform into Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott?

Lastly, from the standpoint of scientific achievement — both Virgin Galactic and New Shepard are rather pointless. As the name suggests, New Shepard replicates the flight of Alan Shepard (5th May 1961) whereas Virgin Galactic reached a lower altitude than X-15 Flight 91 (22nd August 1963) piloted by Joe Walker who achieved a right of 107.96 kilometres. So, half a century after those pioneering flights, Branson and Bezos decided to recreate them in a billion-dollar reenactment, where Jeff Bezos’s tone-deafness became all too clear during his celebratory post-flight speech.

So, if Branson and Bezos are eligible to be called astronauts just for ‘sitting back and enjoying the ride’ to space, then anyone who travels by plane is entitled to call himself/herself a pilot.

Space has to be earned, it cannot be bought.

Originally published at on August 9, 2021.



Lazy Armchair Philosopher

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