In recent years, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has watched his commercial space company, Blue Origin, lose ground to the competition. While SpaceX has progressed by leaps and bounds towards realizing regular launches to the Moon and Mars (with the fully-reusable Starship), Blue Origin has been stuck in development hell with its launch vehicles. For this reason, Bezos announced that he would be stepping down as CEO of Amazon to focus on his fledgling space company.
So far, this decision has borne fruit, with the successful suborbital flight test of the New Shepard rocket that took place this past April. Stepping things up a notch, Bezos recently announced that when the first crewed flight of the New Shepard happens later this summer, he will be among the passengers. Scheduled to take place on July 20th, this mission will see Bezos and his younger brother Mark become the first billionaire space tycoon to launch to space.
The announcement came on Monday, June 7th, via Blue Origin and Bezos’ own official Instagram accounts, where Bezos wrote: “Ever since I was five years old, I’ve dreamed of traveling to space. On July 20th, I will take that journey with my brother. The greatest adventure, with my best friend.” The post includes a video in which Bezos goes into detail about his motivations for going himself, and why he invited his brother along.
The video opens with Bezos making a reference 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: “To see the Earth from space, it changes you, it changes your relationship with this planet, with humanity. It’s one Earth.” It is for this reason that Bezos and Blue Origin has been working towards getting the New Shepard ready to conduct suborbital flights for customers.
It’s also the reason why Bezos has decided to go himself and why he invited his brother to come with him, claiming that it would be “more meaningful” that way. “I wasn’t even expecting him to say that he was going to be on the first flight, and when he asked me to go along, I was just awestruck,” his brother says. “What a remarkable opportunity, not just to have 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 take astronauts and research payloads past the Kármán Line – the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space. For years, Bezos has spoken of how this vehicle will fulfill his company’s vision of increasing access to space by offering commercial flights – i.e., space tourism.
To date, the New Shepard rocket has conducted 14 uncrewed flights to space, each time flying to an altitude of about 100 km (62 mi) above the surface. The previous flight, which took place on April 14th (SN-15), was a “dress rehearsal” for the first crewed mission, consisting of operations designed to simulate astronaut movements aboard the New Shepard capsule.
As with previous launches, the flight will last about 11 minutes in total from launch to touchdown. After the New Shepard first stage booster reaches the Kármán Line, the capsule will be released and the passengers inside will experience a few minutes of weightlessness and be treated to scenic views of Earth. The capsule will then descend, deploy its parachutes, and make a soft landing.
The other passengers will consist of the Blue Origin astronaut crew, with one seat set aside for whoever wins the online auction that was announced on May 5th to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Alan Shepard‘s historic Freedom 7 flight. In just three days (June 12th), the winner will be announced and all proceeds from the auction will be donated to Blue Origin’s foundation, Club for the Future. As of the writing of this article, the current high bid is $4 million USD.
If all goes as planned, Bezos will be the first billionaire to go to space aboard a launch vehicle of his own development. This would be a fine feather in Bezos’ cap and will certainly be good PR for his company as well. By flying aboard the inaugural flight (with his brother, to boot), Bezos is demonstrating a degree of confidence in his company and the services it intends to offer to the general public.
Despite the immense accomplishments of SpaceX, which Musk founded a year after Bezos launched Blue Origin, its founder has not flown to orbit aboard any of his rockets. This may be something that Musk will choose to do in the coming years, to demonstrate a similar level of confidence in his vehicle design. But for the time being, it looks like Bezos is going to beat Musk to at least one important milestone.
In the past, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has said that he would be among the first passengers to fly aboard the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity when it makes its maiden flight. Branson’s company, which is in direct competition with Blue Origin and SpaceX, was not expected to make its first crewed flight until later this year. However, Bezos’ announcement has caused a shakeup over at Virgin Galactic!
As Douglas Messier, the Managing Editor 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 plane over the July 4 holiday weekend, according to a source who requested anonymity. The flight is contingent upon obtaining an operator’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).”
This stands in contrast to what Virgin Galactic had previously stated as late as the beginning of June. At that time, according to Eric Berger at Ars Technica, Virgin Galactic’s VP of government affairs (Sirisha Bandla) claimed that the company had three test flights planned. The next would happen in the latter half of 2021 and involve a crew of four Virgin Galactic employees in the passenger cabin.
The flight with company founder Richard Branson would follow, claimed Bandla, followed by a final test flight with the Italian Air Force. But in direct response to Bezos’ plan, Virgin Galactic hoped to move Branson’s flight up to July 4th and beat Bezos to space by a little over two weeks. However, the possibility of competition was downplayed in a statement released by Virgin Galactic on Tuesday, June 8th, in which a company spokesperson said:
“We are in the process of analyzing the data from our successful May 22nd flight. As previously announced, we expect to complete the final test flights this summer through to early fall. At this time, we have not determined the date of our next flight. An objective from the last flight was to collect data to be used for the final two verification reports that are required as part of the current FAA commercial reusable spacecraft operator’s license.”
Those who are old enough to remember are sure to be feeling a sense of nostalgia right now. Is this not like the heady days of Vostok and Project Mercury, when the American and Soviet space programs were in a game of constant one-upmanship? Sure, it’s now a matter 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 though. There’s a new space race in town, and this time, it’s personal!
Further Reading: CNN, Ars Technica, Parabolic Arc