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Space spat: Billionaires fight over where space starts, but does it really matter?

Blue Origin New Shepard reaches 62 miles vs. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo’s reach of 55 miles

Blue Origin's crew capsule cabin with large windows and large seats.
Blue Origin's crew capsule cabin with large windows and large seats. (Blue Origin)

ORLANDO, Fla. – As Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic prepare to begin launching paying customers, the companies are at odds over the definition of space itself.

Both Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo spaceplane are flying to suborbital space, compared to, say, the International Space Station, which is 200 miles above Earth orbiting the planet.

The space debate intensified after Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson announced plans to launch with his company on July 11 ahead of Jeff Bezos’s planned spaceflight on July 20, putting the two billionaires at odds in their race to space.

International aeronautic and astronautic federations in Europe recognize the Kármán line 62 miles above the planet as the official boundary between Earth’s upper atmosphere and space, however, NASA, the Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration accept a minimum altitude of 50 miles. The FAA created its Commercial Astronaut Wings Program to recognize crew who fly and return from that 50-mile mark.

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Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity reaches 55 miles above Earth at peak altitude and Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule reaches 62 miles up. Bezos’s company took to social media ahead of Virgin Galactic’s first fully crewed flight to slam its competition.

“From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name. For 96% of the world’s population, space begins 100 km up, at the internationally recognized Kármán line,” Blue Origin wrote. “Only 4% of the world recognizes a lower limit of 80 km or 50 miles as the beginning of space. New Shepard flies above both boundaries. One of the many benefits of flying with Blue Origin.”

Virgin Galactic has yet to respond to the post.

Regardless of how high they fly, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin already are referring to their prospective clients as “astronauts.”

The opportunities available by both spacecraft are also important for researchers who require a low-gravity environment to conduct experiments that impact life here on Earth and in space.

The question remains whether wealthy customers will be willing to pay more for those extra few miles up to meet the internationally recognized definition of space.

Blue Origin has yet to release its ticket price for a flight on New Shepard, but plans to after its first crewed flight. Meanwhile, the winning bidder for the company’s first crewed flight (July 20) paid $28 million during a live auction.

More than 600 people have reserved seats with Virgin Galactic at $250,000, and have been waiting years to fly. The company said after this flight it plans to fly two additional flights before it begins commercial service next year.

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But Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are far from the only companies flying wealthy civilians to space, and they won’t be the last.

In September, SpaceX will go far beyond either Bezos’s or Branson’s flights, launching a businessman and his three guests to orbit the Earth in the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. Elon Musk’s company has also partnered with Axiom Space with two planned flights to the International Space Station, flying private citizens in Crew Dragon.

Space tourism company Space Perspectives already has 300 paying customers for its first space balloon flights starting in late 2024. A seat costs $125,000 per person on the Spaceship Neptune capsule, but right now, customers need only to put down a $1,000 refundable deposit.

The capsule called Spaceship Neptune will be carried to 100,000 feet or almost 19 miles above Earth, far below the Kármán line, but it seems people are ready to fork out the money for the experience, which includes a fully-stocked bar and a bathroom.

See a breakdown of SpaceShipTwo vs. New Shepard below.