Over the past few years, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has watched his commercial space company Blue Origin lose ground to its competitors. While SpaceX has made leaps and bounds towards regular launches to the Moon and Mars (with the fully reusable Starship), Blue Origin is stuck in development hell with its launch vehicles. Because of this, Bezos announced that he would step down as CEO of Amazon to focus on his young space company.
So far, this decision has borne fruit with the successful suborbital flight test of the New Shepard rocket last April. Bezos recently announced that when the New Shepard’s first manned flight takes place later this summer, he will be among the passengers. On this mission, which is scheduled to take place on July 20, Bezos and his younger brother Mark become the first multi-billion dollar space tycoon to launch into space.
The announcement was made on Monday, June 7th, via Blue Origin and Bezos’ own official Instagram accounts, where Bezos wrote: “I’ve been dreaming of going into space since I was five years old. On July 20th I will take this trip with my brother. The greatest adventure with my best friend. ”The post contains a video in which Bezos goes into detail about his motivations and why he invited his brother.
The video begins with Bezos referring to the overview effect, a term coined by “space philosopher” Frank White in his 1987 book of the same name. As Bezos aptly put it: “Seeing Earth from space changes you, it changes your relationship with this planet, with humanity. It’s an earth. ”This is why Bezos and Blue Origin worked to prepare the New Shepard for suborbital flights for customers.
This is also the reason why Bezos decided to go himself and invited his brother to come with him, claiming that it would be “more meaningful” that way. “I didn’t even expect him to say he would be on the first flight, and when he asked me to come, I was just awed,” says his brother. “What a remarkable opportunity not only to experience this adventure, but to do it with my best friend!”
In addition to being reusable, the New Shepard is a fully autonomous suborbital spacecraft designed to bring astronauts and research payloads past the Kármán Line – the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space. Bezos has been talking for years about how this vehicle will fulfill his company’s vision of improving access to space through commercial flights – that is, space tourism.
To date, the New Shepard missile has made 14 unmanned flights into space, each time approximately 100 km (62 miles) above the surface. The previous flight, which took place on April 14 (SN-15), was a “dress rehearsal” for the first manned mission, which consisted of operations designed to simulate astronaut movements aboard the New Shepard capsule.
As with previous take-offs, the flight from take-off to landing takes about 11 minutes in total. After New Shepard’s first stage booster reaches the Kármán Line, the capsule is released and passengers experience a few minutes of weightlessness while enjoying a scenic view of the earth. The capsule then descends, deploying its parachutes and making a soft landing.
The rest of the passengers will consist of Blue Origin’s astronaut crew, with one seat reserved for the winner of the online auction announced May 5th to mark the 60th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s historic Freedom 7 flight. In just three days (June 12), the winner will be announced and all proceeds from the auction will be donated to the Blue Origin Foundation Club for the Future. At the time of this writing, the current winning bid is $ 4 million.
If everything goes according to plan, Bezos will be the first billionaire to fly into space with a self-developed launcher. This would be a fine feather in Bezos’ cap, and it will certainly be good PR for his company as well. With the flight on board the first flight (additionally with his brother), Bezos demonstrates a certain trust in his company and the services it wants to offer the public.
Despite the immense achievements of SpaceX, which Musk founded a year after Bezos launched Blue Origin, its founder never went into orbit on any of its rockets. This could be something Musk will do in the years to come to demonstrate a similar level of confidence in his vehicle design. But for now, it looks like Bezos will beat Musk by at least one major milestone.
In the past, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson said he would be among the first passengers to fly aboard the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity when it makes its maiden flight. Branson’s company, which competes directly with Blue Origin and SpaceX, wasn’t scheduled to make its first manned flight until later this year. However, the Bezos announcement caused a stir at Virgin Galactic!
As Douglas Messier, editor-in-chief and founder of Parabolic Arc, reported on Monday (June 7th) – the same day as Bezos’ announcement:
Virgin Galactic is working on a plan to send Branson on a suborbital flight aboard the VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket aircraft over the July 4th vacation weekend, according to a source requesting anonymity. The flight is dependent on obtaining an operator license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). “
This is in contrast to what Virgin Galactic said back in early June. According to Eric Berger of Ars Technica, Virgin Galactic’s vice president of government affairs (Sirisha Bandla) claimed at the time that the company had planned three test flights. The next would happen in the second half of 2021 and include a crew of four Virgin Galactic employees in the passenger cabin.
The flight with founder Richard Branson would follow, Bandla claimed, followed by a final test flight with the Italian Air Force. But in direct response to Bezos’ plan, Virgin Galactic was hoping to postpone Branson’s flight to July 4th, beating Bezos into space by just over two weeks. However, the possibility of the competition was downplayed in a statement released by Virgin Galactic on Tuesday, June 8, in which a company spokesperson said:
“We are in the process of analyzing the data from our successful flight on May 22nd. As already announced, we expect the last test flights this summer by early autumn. At this point we have not yet set the date of our next flight. An objective of the last flight was to collect data that should be used for the final two verification reports required under the current FAA operator license for commercial reusable spacecraft. “
Those old enough to remember this are sure to experience a sense of nostalgia now. Isn’t this like the exciting days of Vostok and Project Mercury, when the American and Soviet space programs were in a game of constant superiority? Sure, it’s now a question of competition between billionaires and their respective space companies, and instead of national prestige, it’s a question of personal pride.
One thing is clear, however. There’s a new space race in town, and this time it’s personal!
Further reading: CNN, Ars Technica, Parabolic Arc