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Home >Opinion >Views >Branson’s ‘space’ flight cracked open a market

This week, London-based Virgin group’s co-founder Richard Branson grabbed eyeballs across the globe, which was not unusual, for an act that was. The British billionaire who started out with niche music and made it big on a strategy of exploring novel spaces in diverse markets—a ‘brand promise’ that defied business gurus on ‘core competence’—flew to the edge of space in an ad capsule for his extra-terrestrial tourism venture. It was a spectacle that stirred demand for Virgin Galactic’s space rides aboard its six-seater craft VSS Unity at $250,000 per seat for 4 minutes of weightless existence with a wonderful view. It was a fizzy moment, but this newly cracked-open market lost some of its fizz soon after, as dismissals of his flight flew around social media. As he had reached just 85km above the planet’s surface, said critics, it was really just another high-altitude flight. Virgin’s archrival, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, keen to play pioneer itself, drew attention to its own intent to cross the so-called Karman line, beyond which it is so airless that nothing can fly without its own power. Some 15km further out, this is usually taken by scientists as the real frontier of space. By this yardstick, Branson’s inaugural trip fell short.

Did it? The market appears to have taken off anyway, with Virgin’s suborbital seats all the buzz among would-be spacefarers who have the money to spare. The company claims a robust response from across the world. To join the action as soon as possible, Bezos reportedly expects to take his shot into the dark yonder on 20 July, before Blue Origin launches a similar tour service. In a way, the countdown to this private race for space began back in 1996, when a clutch of benefactors put up $10 million as an ‘X Prize’—renamed the Ansari X Prize in 2004—for the first non-government entity to send a crew on a reusable craft into space twice within two weeks. The aim was not just to rouse the spirit of exploration, but also spur investment in a field with such big challenges of innovation that its spin-offs would eventually yield kaleidoscopic benefits for the rest of us left down here in the grasp of gravity. Indeed, several of the technologies we use in our daily life can be traced to breakthroughs achieved for grand ventures in need of whizzy new skills. As private businesses prosper in this fast-rising sector, breaking the monopoly of state-run missions, we could make advances in ways we can’t even picture yet. Joyrides for the rich, in other words, could fund a lot more to come. Once Elon Musk’s SpaceX makes its debut, the world will witness a three-way contest like none other. As of now, Branson, whose project had seemed a laggard in recent years, even as investors blew hot and cold over its prospects, has stolen a sudden lead.

In the final analysis, whether Virgin’s craft did or didn’t go into space should not make us split any hair. The arc of our planet would look no less beautiful on this side of Karman’s line or that. In any case, it’s a continuum. While fans of Star Trek will have a long wait for anything like on that TV show, what counts in this market is the core experience on offer. And this, in terms of bodily sensation, is about being afloat up there, not airless. So long as the feel of it is on the ticket and safety throws up no nasty surprises, it’ll probably sell.

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