The billionaire Richard Branson went 87 km into the sky on Sunday, short of the Kármán line, which is 100 km above sea level and where it is generally agreed that space begins. Branson did surpass 80 km above sea level, above which NASA gives out astronaut wings. But come on, man, Branson’s stunt only barely cleared that.
There is, officially, no American government definition for when space begins, apparently in large part because the government does not want to define it, because it could possibly change with technological developments. But let’s accept the 80 km rule for argument’s sake, anyway, and say that Branson was indeed in space, where he spent about a minute-and-a-half before falling back to earth, which is the functional equivalent of having a layover at JFK and then claiming you’ve been to New York City. That might technically be true but simultaneously be complete hogwash.
Instead, I hereby propose a simple, achievable definition of “going to space,” which is that you must orbit the Earth at least once while you’re up there, something that Branson did not do. And, while Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom might be a little mad that their first flights will no longer count, in Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom’s day there weren’t weirdo billionaires engaged in pointless space races.
Also, crucially, the U.S. and the Soviet Union weren’t trying to sell anything beyond their own superiority, whereas Branson would be very pleased if you got in line and paid him a quarter-of-a-million dollars or more to take his dumb amusement park ride. The best thing you can say about Branson or anyone else that takes his spaceplane to suborbital skies is that they have the courage to strap themselves to a rocket, which isn’t nothing. But you can’t say they’ve gone to space, any more than I can say I’ve been to Des Moines, even though I drove through it once. It seemed nice.