VAN HORN, Texas – Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, went to space on Tuesday. It was a brief jaunt – soaring over 65 miles into the skies over West Texas – in a spacecraft built by Mr. Bezos’ rocket company, Blue Origin.
While Mr Bezos was beaten into space last week by Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur who flew in a rocket plane from his company Virgin Galactic, some analysts believe that Blue Origin, founded by Mr Bezos, has more than 20 years ago, is a more important competitor in the future space economy. The company has ambitions far beyond short flights for space tourists, and it’s backed by the entrepreneur who made Amazon an economic powerhouse.
Lori Garver, who was NASA’s deputy administrator during the Obama administration, said Mr. Bezos “has a huge, multigenerational long-term vision.” She added that her intention for Blue Origin was to “compete for even higher stakes” in the growing sector of space.
In 2017, Mr Bezos announced that he would sell $ 1 billion in Amazon stock per year to fund the space business, and Blue Origin has already researched various business opportunities, such as trying to win deals for a lander. lunar for NASA astronauts. as well as the launch of satellites for the Ministry of Defense on large reusable rockets.
In recent years, before stepping down as CEO of Amazon, Mr. Bezos typically spent one day a week – usually Wednesdays – focusing on Blue Origin. The fact that Mr Bezos himself was sitting in the capsule for Tuesday’s space trip makes it clear that he places space flights at the top of his spending list.
“The only way I see to deploy so much financial resources is to convert my Amazon earnings into space travel,” he said a few years ago, describing his investment as a form of philanthropy.
Mr. Bezos described a vision for the future of humanity that is influenced by the proposals of Gerard K. O’Neill, a physicist from Princeton. In the 1970s, Dr O’Neill proposed giant, cylinder-shaped space colonies that in sizable numbers would support far more people and industries than is possible on Earth.
“The solar system can easily support a trillion humans,” Mr. Bezos said. “If we had a trillion humans, we would have a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts and unlimited, for all intents and purposes, resources and solar power. “
In contrast, Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, focused on the idea of installing Mars. Getting to Mars is an easier task than building one of O’Neill’s colonies, but making Mars cold and unhospitable to human civilization would be a huge undertaking.
And despite Tuesday’s successful flight, Blue Origin has a long way to go. To have the impact on the future of humanity described by Mr. Bezos, Blue Origin will need far more than the small New Shepard vehicle that Mr. Bezos and three other passengers flew to the edge of space on Tuesday. .
Although private enterprise has always worked with governments on space travel, it is only in recent decades that private companies have begun to seek to create business opportunities through tourist space flights.
Blue Origin’s accomplishments are pale next to the rocket company run by another of the world’s richest people: SpaceX, which Mr. Musk founded a few years after Blue Origin started.
SpaceX is already a juggernaut in the space industry. It regularly takes astronauts and cargo from NASA to the International Space Station, it has already deployed more than 1,500 satellites in its Starlink constellation to provide internet service everywhere, and it is developing a gargantuan rocket called the Starship for missions to Mars. and elsewhere.
In contrast, Blue Origin’s upcoming projects, at least in the near future, don’t look set to rock the space industry like SpaceX has.
The largest reusable satellite launch rocket that Mr. Bezos’ company, New Glenn is working on, is still over a year away, and efforts to win major government contracts like the Department of the Department’s satellite launch Defense have so far failed. A lunar lander that Blue Origin hopes NASA will someday use to transport astronauts has not been selected, at least for now, as NASA has said it only has money for one design. – that of SpaceX.
Blue Origin’s mascot is the turtle. As in the fable “The tortoise and the hare”, perhaps with a constant and constant effort, Blue Origin can catch up.
Ms Garver recalled that Mr Bezos had traveled to Washington to meet with her and Charles Bolden, the administrator of NASA. At the time, Blue Origin was an enigma.
“We were delighted to hear about her plan,” she said. “It was, ‘I’m here because I’m investing in a space company. I am ready to invest a lot for the long term. And my goals are very aligned with NASA. So if I can be of any help in any way, let’s work together. ‘ “
Blue Origin was working on a capsule that could carry astronauts to the International Space Station and won a modest $ 25.6 million development contract from NASA. But work on this vehicle stalled and Blue Origin dropped out of competition for contracts that were ultimately awarded to Boeing and SpaceX.
“Slow and steady was slower than anyone expected,” Ms. Garver said.
But comparisons to SpaceX’s extraordinary successes are somewhat unfair, she said.
“We are really spoiled by SpaceX right now,” Ms. Garver said.
Even though Blue Origin has yet to live up to its lofty vision, more businesses will mean more competition. “I’m not really as disappointed as some people at their pace,” Ms. Garver said. “I feel like they’re going to get there. We need competition.
Laura Seward Forczyk, founder of the aerospace consulting firm Astralytical, was also positive. “Although their progress has been slow, they haven’t had any significant setbacks that tell me they’re in danger,” she said. “Blue Origin is still finding its way. “
As Blue Origin waits for the path Mr. Bezos will lead it, Tuesday’s flight was a milestone, the company’s first flight to carry people into space, even though it did not enter orbit. .
At 8:11 a.m. Central Time, the truncated rocket and capsule, named New Shepard after Alan Shepard, the first American in space, came out of the company’s launch site at Van Horn, a thin stream of fire and exhaust from the rocket engine.
Over the past six years, Blue Origin has flown 15 successful test flights with no one on board, and engineers felt New Shepard, which flies unmanned, is finally ready for passengers, including their boss.
The other three passengers were Mr. Bezos’ brother, Mark; Oliver Daemen, a Dutch student who was Blue Origin’s first paying passenger; and Mary Wallace Funk, a pilot who in the 1960s was part of a group of women who met the same rigorous selection criteria for astronauts employed by NASA but who, until Tuesday, had never had the chance to board a rocket.
At 18, Mr. Daemen was the youngest person to ever be in space. At 82, Ms. Funk, who goes by the name Wally, was the oldest.
“I want to thank you, darling,” Ms. Funk told Jeff Bezos at a press conference. “I’ve been waiting a long time.
After the thruster was depleted, the capsule detached from the rocket at an altitude of about 47 miles. The two pieces continued to ascend to 66.5 miles, passing the 62-mile limit often considered the start of outer space.
The passengers broke away and floated around the capsule, doing somersaults and throwing ping-pong balls and Skittles candy as they did about four minutes of freefall.
The booster landed vertically near the launch site, similar to SpaceX’s rival Falcon 9 reusable rocket. The capsule is then lowered under parachutes until it settles gently in a puff of dust.
Ten minutes and 10 seconds after the launch, it was over. Minutes later, the four exited the capsule euphoric, greeted by hugs from friends and family.
Two more passenger flights are scheduled for this year, with the company hoping to step up the pace of operations next year. Blue Origin declined to say how much early customers pay or how many have signed up. However, Mr Bezos said, “We are already approaching $ 100 million in private sales. And the demand is very, very high.
In addition to the high cost of tickets to get on New Shepard, Mr. Bezos also drew attention to the vast wealth at his disposal when he explained how he was able to fund Blue Origin in the first place.
“I also want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer,” Bezos said at a post-theft press conference, “because you paid for it all.”
This remark elicited a number of contemptuous responses from critics. Perhaps to blunt the attacks of those who say he is simply using his wealth to create a diversion for the rich, Mr Bezos announced that he created an award for a person he said exemplifies acts of civility and courage.
The award offered $ 100 million each to two people – Van Jones, CNN’s political commentator, and José Andrés, chef and restaurateur – to donate to charitable causes of each recipient’s choice.
Whatever the future of Blue Origin, Mr Bezos remained satisfied on Tuesday. Would he make another trip?
“Hell yes,” he said. “How fast can you refuel this thing?” Let’s go. “
Karen Weise and Neil Vigdor contributed reporting.