October 5, 2023

VAN HORN, Texas – Jeff Bezos, the richest person in the world, flew into space on Tuesday. It was a short trip – more than 65 miles into the sky over West Texas – in a spaceship built by Mr. Bezos’ rocket company Blue Origin.

While Mr Bezos was thrown into space last week by Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur who flew in a rocket plane for his company Virgin Galactic, some analysts believe Blue Origin, which was founded by Mr Bezos more than 20 years ago, is one more a major competitor in the future space economy. The company has ambitions well beyond short flights for space tourists and is backed by the entrepreneur who made Amazon an economic powerhouse.

Lori Garver, who served as NASA’s assistant administrator during the Obama administration, said Mr. Bezos “has a huge, long-term vision that spans generations.” She added that his intent for Blue Origin is to “compete for even higher stakes” in the growing space business.

In 2017, Mr Bezos announced that he would sell $ 1 billion in Amazon stock annually to fund the space venture, and Blue Origin has already pursued a number of business opportunities such as: For example, trying to win orders for a lunar lander for NASA astronauts and launching satellites for the Department of Defense with large reusable rockets.

In the last few years before stepping down as CEO of Amazon, Mr. Bezos usually spent one day a week – usually Wednesdays – focusing on Blue Origin. The fact that Mr Bezos himself was in the capsule for the space trip on Tuesday makes it clear that he is putting space travel at the top of his spending list.

“The only way to use so much financial resources is to turn my Amazon profits into space,” he said a few years ago, describing his investment as a form of philanthropy.

Mr. Bezos has described a vision of the future of mankind influenced by the suggestions of Gerard K. O’Neill, a Princeton physicist. In the 1970s, Dr. O’Neill proposed huge cylindrical space colonies that, in sufficient numbers, would support far more people and industry than would be possible on Earth.

“The solar system can easily feed a trillion people,” said Bezos. “If we had a trillion people, we would have a thousand Einstein’s and a thousand Mozarts and unlimited, for all practical purposes, resources and solar energy.”

In contrast, Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, focused on the idea of ​​colonizing Mars. Getting to Mars is an easier task than building one of O’Neill’s colonies, but making cold and airless Mars hospitable to human civilization would be a daunting undertaking.

And despite the successful flight on Tuesday, Blue Origin still has a lot to do. To have the impact on the future of mankind described by Mr Bezos, Blue Origin needs a lot more than the little New Shepard vehicle that Mr Bezos and three other passengers flew to the edge of space on Tuesday.

Although private companies have always worked with governments in the space industry, it is only in the last few decades that private companies have started to develop business opportunities from space tourism.

Blue Origin’s accomplishments pale next to the rocket company run by another of the richest people in the world: SpaceX, which Mr. Musk founded a few years after Blue Origin launched.

SpaceX is already a giant in the space business. It regularly brings NASA astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station, it has deployed more than 1,500 satellites in its Starlink constellation to provide internet services everywhere, and it is developing a gigantic rocket called Starship for missions to Mars and elsewhere.

In contrast, Blue Origin’s upcoming projects don’t seem, at least in the near future, to be turning the space industry upside down like SpaceX has.

The larger reusable satellite launch rocket that Mr Bezos’ company, New Glenn, is working on is more than a year away, and efforts to win large government contracts such as Defense Department satellites have so far been unsuccessful. A lunar lander that Blue Origin hopes NASA will one day carry astronauts has not been selected, at least for now, because NASA said it only had money for one design – SpaceX.

Blue Origin’s mascot is the turtle. As in the fable “The Tortoise and the Hare”, Blue Origin can perhaps catch up with steady, constant effort.

Ms. Garver recalled that Mr. Bezos went to Washington to meet with her and Charles Bolden, the NASA administrator. At the time, Blue Origin was a mystery.

“We were thrilled to hear about his plan,” she said. “It was, ‘I’m here because I’m investing in a space company. I am ready to invest a lot in the long term. And my goals are very much aligned with NASA. So if I can help in any way, let’s work together. ‘”

Blue Origin was working on a capsule that could ship astronauts to the International Space Station and was awarded a modest $ 25.6 million development contract from NASA. But work on this vehicle stalled and Blue Origin was eliminated from the competition for the contracts that ultimately went to Boeing and SpaceX.

“Slow and steady was slower than everyone had hoped,” said Ms. Garver.

But comparisons to SpaceX’s extraordinary successes are a little unfair, she said.

“We’re really spoiled by SpaceX right now,” said Ms. Garver.

Even if Blue Origin has not yet lived up to its lofty vision, more companies mean more competition. “I’m not really as disappointed as some people are with their pace,” said Ms. Garver. “I have a feeling that they will get there. We need competition. “

Laura Seward Forczyk, founder of the aviation consultancy Astralytical, also made positive comments. “Although they have been slow to advance, they have not had major outages that to me suggest they are at risk,” she said. “Blue Origin is still finding its way forward.”

While Blue Origin awaits the path that Mr Bezos will take down, Tuesday’s flight marked a milestone, the company’s first flight to take people into space even though it did not go into orbit.

At 8:11 a.m. Central Time, the short rocket and capsule, named New Shepard after Alan Shepard, the first American in space, rose from the company’s launch site in Van Horn, a thin stream of fire and exhaust emanating from the The rocket’s engine streamed.

Over the past six years, Blue Origin has completed 15 successful test flights with no people on board, and engineers felt that New Shepard, flying without a pilot, was 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 female pilot who was part of a group of women in the 1960s who passed the same rigorous astronaut eligibility criteria as NASA but never got a chance to board a rocket until Tuesday.

At 18, Mr. Daemen was the youngest person to ever fly into space. At 82, Mrs. Funk, whose name was Wally, was the oldest.

“I want to thank you, honey,” Ms. Funk said to Jeff Bezos during a press conference. “I have waited a long time.”

After the booster ran out of fuel, the capsule detached from the missile at an altitude of about 47 miles. Both parts continued up to a length of 66.5 miles and passed the 62-mile limit, which is often viewed as the beginning of space.

Passengers unbuckled their seatbelts and floated around the capsule, overturning and throwing ping-pong balls and cone drops, while experiencing about four minutes of free fall.

The booster landed vertically near the launch site, much like SpaceX’s rival Falcon 9 reusable rocket. The capsule then parachuted until it settled gently in a cloud of dust.

Ten minutes and 10 seconds after the start it was over. A few minutes later the four emerged euphorically from the capsule, greeted with hugs from friends and family.

Two more passenger flights are planned for this year, with the company hoping to accelerate operations next year. Blue Origin declined to say how much the early customers are paying or how many have signed up. However, Mr. Bezos said, “We are already nearing $ 100 million in private sales. And the demand is very, very high. “

In addition to the high cost of train tickets on New Shepard, Mr. Bezos also drew attention to the enormous wealth that was available to him when he noted how he was even able to fund Blue Origin.

“I would also like to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer,” said Mr Bezos in a press conference after the flight, “because you paid for everything.”

This comment sparked a number of scornful reactions from critics. Perhaps to blunt attacks from those who say he is only using his wealth to create distractions for the rich, Mr Bezos announced that he has created an award for individuals who exemplify both courtesy and courage.

The award offered two people – Van Jones, CNN’s political commentator and José Andrés, the chef and restaurateur – each $ 100 million to be donated to charitable causes of the recipient’s choice.

Whatever the future of Blue Origin, Mr Bezos stayed satisfied on Tuesday. Would he go on another trip?

“Damn it,” he said. “How fast can you fill up the thing? Let’s go.”

Karen Weise and Neil Vigdor contributed to the coverage.