This editorial appeared first in the Providence Journal:
Will we someday be able to leave Earth as easily as we fly from point to point on its surface? It seems we are one step closer, following the successful flight and landing of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spacecraft, which soared more than 51 miles above the California desert in a test flight this month.
Fifty one miles above the surface. Think of it: The typical domestic flight might reach an altitude of 30,000 feet, or between five and six miles high. Virgin Galactic flew 10 times higher, at an altitude where the planet below can clearly be seen to be a cloud-strewn globe, spinning through the darkness beyond.
It wasn’t the highest a privately crewed craft has flown — that distinction belongs a predecessor craft, SpaceShipOne, whose pilot took it nearly 70 miles above the same desert in 2004. But the private space race had stalled since, until Mr. Branson’s Virgin began racing fellow billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to reboot the dream of commercial space tourism.
We might also quibble about where space begins, and whether Virgin Galactic really reached it. At 51 miles, it surpassed the rather arbitrary boundary set by NASA’s predecessor agency, which noted that above 50 miles, atmospheric pressure dropped below one pound per square foot, a point at which aircraft control surfaces were no longer effective.
But if you define space as the point at which satellites can fly in a sustainable orbit, that’s about 100 miles high. If you’re counting the distance to space in atmospheric layers, Virgin Galactic reached the bottom of the second-highest layer, known as the thermosphere. It flew through a sublayer known as the ionosphere, where charged particles create such otherworldly phenomena as the aurora borealis.
And yet, space flight is poetry as well as physics. Virgin Galactic soared successfully beyond recent ventures and reignited the dream of space flight for the rest of us. We have reached the point where a person with no astronaut training might plausibly board a spacecraft and reach space by lunchtime. The idea fires the imagination, inspiring us again to contemplate the mystery of our own antlike lives, conducted atop a planet spinning through the Great Deep.
Consider the Spitfire piloted in 1941 by Royal Canadian Airman John Gillespie Magee reached just 33,000 feet, yet he was inspired to write the poem “High Flight,” in which he spoke of “slipping the surly bonds of Earth” and “touching the face of God.”
We humans are curious and adventurous by nature. We seek to explore the oceans, climb the next hill, and soar above the clouds. It is refreshing, in fact, that space travel is becoming democratized by international partnerships and private ventures like Virgin Galactic. Space exploration is too grand an enterprise to be the province only of government agencies with billion-dollar budgets.
Congratulations to the team behind Virgin Galactic — and thank you for reawakening in us the wonder of space travel.