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.
“The best day of my life,” Bezos exclaimed after the capsule settled in the dust near the launch site.
The flight, although it did not enter orbit, was a milestone for the business that Mr. Bezos, the founder of Amazon, launched more than 20 years ago, the first time that a Blue Origin vehicle was carrying people into space.
The fact that Mr. Bezos himself was seated in the capsule reflects his enthusiasm for the business and perhaps indicates his intention to give Blue Origin the attention and creative entrepreneurial spirit that made it so. Amazon is one of the most powerful economic forces on the planet. But the short duration of the trip also highlighted the slow pace of the company’s progress and how far Mr. Bezos is from capturing a significant part of the emerging space economy, let alone realizing his vision of a huge number of people living and working in space.
On Tuesday, however, the launch went smoothly, as expected.
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 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 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.
“Thank you,” Ms. Funk told Mr. Bezos afterwards.
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.
Mr. Bezos and the passengers broke away and floated around the capsule, experiencing about four minutes of free fall.
The booster landed vertically, similar to the Falcon 9 reusable booster from rival space flight company SpaceX. 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. A few minutes later, the four came out of the capsule euphoric.
The Amazon Founder’s Short Trip was the end of a leg of a journey that began decades ago.
Mr. Bezos, a child of the Apollo era of the 1960s and 1970s, mentionned in 2014, that “space has been something I’ve been in love with since I was 5”.
But this passion took precedence over his first business ventures for a long time. Mr. Bezos, now 57, first worked on Wall Street, then started Amazon in 1994. Six years later, he founded Blue Origin. But building Amazon – his “day to day job,” as he once called it – took up the vast majority of his time, as he turned it into one of the most powerful and powerful retail forces. most feared of all time.
In recent years, he typically spent one day a week – usually Wednesday – focusing on Blue Origin, and in 2017 he announced that he would sell $ 1 billion in Amazon stock a year to fund the space company. .
In 2018, he passed Bill Gates to become the richest person in the world. Exploring space has risen to the top of his list of expenses.
“The only way I can see to deploy so much financial resources is to convert my Amazon earnings into space travel,” he said. mentionned, presenting his investment as a form of philanthropy.
Mr Bezos described a vision influenced by the proposals of Gerard K. O’Neill, a physicist at Princeton who in the 1970s proposed giant cylinder-shaped space colonies which in sufficient numbers would support many 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.
Andy Jassy, one of Mr Bezos’ main assistants, took over as head of Amazon earlier this month, and Mr Bezos said he wanted to focus more on Blue Origin and his other businesses.
“I’ve never had more energy, and it’s not about retiring,” he told Amazon employees. “I’m very passionate about the impact these organizations can have, I think. “
To make such a powerful impact, Blue Origin will need a lot more than the small New Shepard vehicle.
In the short term, Blue Origin’s competitor is Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company launched by Richard Branson. When Mr. Branson made a similar suborbital voyage last week, it was simple to point out that Mr. Branson had beaten Mr. Bezos in space.
For the first flight, Blue Origin auctioned off one of the seats, with the proceeds going to Mr. Bezos’ non-profit, the Club for the Future. The winning bid was $ 28 million, an amount that stunned even Blue Origin officials.
The 7,600 people who participated in the auction provided Blue Origin with a list of potential paying customers, and the company began selling tickets to some of them.
When the winner of the auction, who remains anonymous, decided to skip the first flight and make the trip later, Blue Origin contacted Mr. Daemen, one of the people who had a ticket for the second flight.
Blue Origin declined to say what the price is or how many people have signed up, but a spokesperson said there was high demand.
Yet Mr. Bezos has always had ambitions far greater than space tourism. And 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.
Blue Origin’s plans don’t look set to rock the space industry like SpaceX has.
New Glenn, a larger reusable rocket for satellite launching, is still over a year away, and efforts to win major government contracts such as the Defense Department’s satellite launch 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.
Lori Garver, assistant administrator of NASA under the Obama administration, recalled that Mr. Bezos had traveled to Washington to meet her and Charles Bolden, the administrator. At the time, Blue Origin was an enigma.
“We were delighted to hear about his plan,” Ms. Garver 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.
At any other point in her career, if a well-funded company like Blue Origin had emerged with the goal of building economical, reusable rockets and spacecraft, “we would all have been blown away,” she 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 making progress.”
Maybe Blue Origin could just turn out to be a successful, profitable aerospace company, more like Northrop Grumman or United Launch Alliance. “They don’t have to become like SpaceX to achieve their goals,” Ms. Forczyk said.
Whatever the future of Blue Origin, by the end of Tuesday’s flight, Mr. Bezos was thrilled.
“You have a very happy group of people in this capsule,” he told ground control.
Karen Weise contributed reporting.