Blue Origin and the age of billionaire joyrides to space

Blue Origin and the age of billionaire joyrides to space

From the Pegasus scandal to WordPress 5.8 launch, the tech industry recorded some fascinating developments last week. Some of them were hardly imagined; this included the first human flight to space courtesy of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

Bezos has flown straight to the border of space. The billionaire — carried in a rocket built by his spaceflight company Blue Origin and accompanied by three fellow space tourists — joins a small but growing number of people who have travelled to space but aren’t professionally trained astronauts.

Bezos’ trip, like Rebecca Heiweil of the Recode writes, is a big deal for Blue Origin — although its New Shepard rocket, named after the first American to visit space, Alan Shepard, has already had 15 successful test flights.

Tuesday’s session was the first time the rocket carried humans to space. But more importantly, the journey signals that the era of civilian space tourism is officially here — at least for the very wealthy.

Earlier this month, Richard Branson, a fellow billionaire and the founder of space tourism company Virgin Galactic, beat Bezos to the border of space when he flew there on a 90-minute trip with five other passengers on one of his company’s plans.

Bezos’s and Branson’s space travel is a reminder that space is no longer only a place where national governments set out to explore and to learn more about the universe, but a terrain that private businesses are capitalizing on. Bezos has invested billions of his own money into Blue Origin, and his company recently auctioned a ticket to space on one of its rockets for $28 million.

At a pre-launch mission briefing on Sunday, Blue Origin’s director of astronaut sales Ariane Cornell said two more flights were anticipated this year and that the company had “already built a robust pipeline of customers that are interested.” 

Analysts at the investment banking firm Canaccord Genuity have estimated that tourism to suborbital space could be an $8 billion industry by the end of the decade. Blue Origin hosted a mind-blowing live feed on its website.

The path taken by Blue Origin

It was on Tuesday, around 9:15 am ET on July 20, when Blue Origin’s rocket took off from a remote desert in West Texas. At lift-off, the vehicle launched toward space, carrying a six-seat capsule containing Bezos and the other passengers, pushed upward by a powerful, 60-foot-tall booster rocket.

To reach space, New Shepard moves incredibly quickly: faster than Mach 3, or more than three times the speed of sound. A few minutes into the flight, the capsule separated from the booster, which then headed back toward Earth and landed vertically (ensuring it’s reusable for future flights).

Meanwhile, Blue Origin’s capsule headed to the apex of its flight path and crossed the Kármán line, the internationally recognized border between Earth’s atmosphere and space. That’s about 62 miles above the Earth’s surface, about 10 miles higher than Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic flight earlier this month. Like that flight, those travelling on Blue Origin’s New Shepard were given a stunning view of Earth and had the chance to experience weightlessness.

“They’re obviously going a little bit higher, a little bit faster, but they’re still only going to have just a few minutes of low microgravity experience before coming right back down,” Wendy Whitman Cobb, a professor at the US Air Force’s School of Air and Space Studies, was quoted by Recode to have said.

“There’s also the notion of what’s called the ‘overview effect.’ That’s when astronauts do get up into space and are high enough to see the Earth for what it is, and it sort of changes how they view things on Earth.”

Point to note

Bezos and Blue Origin are not the only private ventures looking to cash in on joyrides to space. Virgin Galactic, fresh off Branson’s flight, mentioned earlier, is already moving ahead with its plans to test and modify its planes for eventual commercial service.

SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, is sending its rocket to space this fall, too with billionaire Jared Isaacman aboard. At the same time, NASA is also bringing these companies along for more ambitious ventures, including hiring SpaceX to transport its astronauts to the International Space Station.