On Tuesday morning, Jeff Bezos and his three companions — Mark Bezos, Wally Funk and Oliver Daemen — will be aboard the first crewed flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle. The flight will include the youngest (Daemen), oldest (Funk) and richest (Jeff Bezos) people ever to fly to space.
Fewer than 25 suborbital spaceflights have ever been conducted
Most suborbital launches were conducted with vehicles retired decades ago
No suborbital flight has ever carried a paying passenger
There is no agreement on what even constitutes a suborbital spaceflight
by Douglas Messier Managing Editor
When Richard Branson and three Virgin Galactic employees strap into their seats aboard SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity on Sunday, they will briefly go where not very many have gone before: suborbital space.
Of the 374 attempts to launch astronauts to space since Yuri Gagarin flew into Earth orbit 60 years ago, only 23 were suborbital flights. The majority of those launches were conducted during the 1960’s using vehicles that long ago became museum pieces. One ended with the loss of the spacecraft and its pilot. And two flights were unintentional ones involving vehicles being launched into Earth orbit.
Take me out to the black, Tell them I ain’t comin’ back. Burn the land and boil the sea, You can’t take the sky from me….
— “The Ballad of Serenity,” Sonny Rhodes
“After so many years and so much hard work, New Mexico has finally reached the stars.”
— New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham
by Douglas Messier Managing Editor
By now, you’ve probably read the rhetoric flourishes in Virgin Galactic’s press release about the company’s first suborbital flight test in more than two years that was conducted on Saturday. Suffice to say, if the stars were located at the altitude that SpaceShipTwo actually reached (55.45 miles/89.2 km), they would take the sky away at the same time they burned the land and boiled the seas. Being suborbital, VSS Unity wouldn’t have helped anyone escape the inferno.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen. So, let’s just put doomsday out of our minds. It’s time to break down what the flight test accomplished, what comes next, and why 27 months passed between powered flights. And what about Jeff Bezos?
The first successful launch of Germany’s A-4 ballistic missile and the orbiting of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik-1, took place 15 years and one day apart. The two achievements are related in more ways than their proximity on the calendar.
On Oct. 3, 1942, an A-4 developed by Wernher von Braun and his German Army team reached an altitude of 85 to 90 km (52.8 to 55.9 miles) after launch from Peenemunde on the Baltic Coast.
Well, there’s some great news for Virgin Galactic as it prepares for an attempt to send SpaceShipTwo to space. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), which maintains records for aviation and spaceflight, is considering lowering the boundary of space from 100 to 80 km (62.1 to 47.7 miles).
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo probably can’t reach the 100 km boundary, which is also known as the Karman line.
FAI issued the following statement last week:
The Karman line is the 100km altitude used by FAI and many other organisations to mark the “boundary” of space . In the last few years there have been many scientific and technical discussions around this demarcation line for the “edge of space” and variance around this as a boundary condition for recognition of “astronaut” status.
Recently published analyses present a compelling scientific case for reduction in this altitude from 100km to 80km. These analyses combine data/modelling from a number of differing perspectives (latitudinal variations during solar cycles, theoretical lift coefficients for different size/configuration satellites ranging from cubesats to the International Space Station, perigee/apogee elliptical analysis of actual satellite orbital lifetimes etc) to a level that has never been done before in relation to this issue. They also provide an accurate overview of some of the historical arguments and inadvertent misrepresentations of Karman’s actual analyses and conclusions from over half a century ago.
FAI has therefore been in contact with the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) to propose that an international workshop is held during 2019 to fully explore this issue with input and participation from the astrodynamics and astronautical community.
Such a seminar, to be held under joint FAI/IAF auspices, would enable discussion from a wide range of professionals with relevant expertise to analyse and discuss the issue and possible redefinition of the altitude used by international organisations including FAI to recognise human spaceflights.
If the findings lead to a redefinition of the boundary of space as it is in use by international organisations, FAI would review any performances made between today’s statement and the date of implementation of the revised definition in order to ensure that these performances already take into consideration the findings as they exist today.