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Jeff Bezos Is Ready to Cross a Cosmically Controversial Line

Days after Richard Branson flew to space and back, Jeff Bezos is preparing for his turn.

The dueling space billionaires share a lifelong fascination with space travel and aspire to sell customers a few glorious minutes of weightlessness, high above Earth. But on one very basic point they disagree: Where does space begin?

Bezos’s Blue Origin is designed to take passengers to a higher altitude than Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Just before Branson’s flight earlier this month, Blue Origin tweeted that it flies higher than Virgin Galactic, “so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name”—suggesting that Virgin Galactic passengers don’t become “real” astronauts.

Isn’t this designation—the edge of space—something two men and, really, all other residents of planet Earth should be able to agree on? Remarkably, no, and the division doesn’t originate with Bezos and Branson.

There is no universal standard, let alone a legal definition, for the region high above the ground, where Earth’s atmosphere thins and gives way to space. NASA, the U.S. military, and the Federal Aviation Administration, which approves licenses for space launches, put the boundary at 50 miles (80 kilometers) above the ground. Virgin Galactic just passes that line. The World Air Sports Federation, or the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), which maintains standards for aeronautical activities, puts the line at 62 miles (100 kilometers). Blue Origin claims this is where it really counts. This second altitude, known as the Kármán line, is the most-well-known definition for the edge of space—but not an inarguable fact of nature.


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