British billionaire Richard Branson took off on Virgin Galactic on Sunday with five others on a historic space flight. Cruising to an altitude of 50 miles, Branson did not cross the Karman line, yet beat Jeff Bezos in the billionaire space race. Nicholas Schmidle, author of Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut, and New Yorker writer joins.
For more on the space launch, I spoke with Nicholas Schmidle, a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of the new book: "Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut."
So, Nicholas, today's lift off, launch, I mean, is this essentially just a race between billionaires? I mean, why was it so significant?
This is a real thing. This is not just a contest between the world's richest men for who can, sort of, have the biggest toys. That part is certainly there, no doubt. But this is a vindication. I think what's really important to remember is that Richard Branson, he's not someone his business empire is not based on things that he has built with his hands. He's a marketing genius. Right. And he has built brands. He has built companies. But he specializes in the customer experience. And that's what he was going to do with Virgin Galactic. He had another company, Scaled Composites, which is going to build the spaceship for him, hand it off, he was going to then sort of brand it up and then he was going to fly passengers. And then this terrible crash in 2014 tore those plans apart. And suddenly Richard Branson is overseeing a company, his first sort of company that started really building things and it's building spaceships. And so today was a vindication. Now, the next question is whether he will be able to turn this into a viable business. But we'll let him have his day of massive success.
This success is on the back of a lot of hardship. They've lost people. There's a reason this is called exploration and rocket science.
You know, in 2007 there were three engineers that were killed in a propulsion accident out in Mojave, California. In 2014, there was this crash. In 2019, their second space flight, they nearly lost the vehicle. And when they landed and they wheeled the spaceship into the hangar, the test pilots and the engineers were sort of all looking at each other and asking themselves, like we very well could have killed two pilots and one engineer and they didn't. And so, yeah, the costs are real. And Richard Branson's life right there was in the hands of two test pilots.
Speaking of that, you have this very different model. It's not a rocket going straight up and coming back down. This is essentially a plane carrying another plane and then launching off from the sky. Right. So why this big structural difference? Doesn't sort of physics favor just the rocket model?
Physics do favor that model. And it's I think it's important to remember that Bezos and Musk are, you know, computer scientists. They're programmers. There's this ethos at those companies that you can program your way through human error and Richard Branson is just always been more interested in the romance of it. He didn't actually make the decision to go with this spaceship so much as this spaceship, a smaller version of the Spaceship One, the X Prize in 2004, Richard Branson said, I love it, build me a bigger one. And so that's the genesis of Spaceship Two and Virgin Galactic whole configuration, which is that it worked in 2004. And what they've discovered is that it's much harder to scale than they thought.
So this is just really kind of nerds that might be quibbling, but did Branson make it to space as we define it?
The internationally recognized space is 328,000 feet above sea level, which is one hundred kilometers. Round number, right? The U.S. uses another round number: 50 miles, which comes to 264,000 thousand feet. So Virgin Galactic was designed to go to 328,000. Unfortunately, every accident makes you build a ship a little bit heavier and heavier. Spaceship is inherently a harder spaceship to get out of the atmosphere. When they realized they couldn't get to 328,000, they said we're going to go for 50 miles for now. Now look, I've seen the video. You can see the cockpit video, stuff floating, it's black, it's a blue Earth down below. It looks like space to me, but it does. You know, the Virgin Galactic president said to me in 2019 he conceded that it does give Blue Origin a leg to stand on, that they are going to the international boundary of space. So, you know, I think Virgin Galactic will get there eventually, but I think it will take them a while to get there.
Nicholas Schmidle, author of the book Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut. Thanks so much for joining us.
Thanks for having me on, it's been fun.
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