When Kent-based Blue Origin on Tuesday rockets Jeff Bezos upward on its first mission carrying humans into space, the wealthiest man on the planet will be blazing the trail of a newly hot recreation for the very rich: space tourism.
Bezos, creator of Amazon, founder and bankroller of Blue Origin, follows on the tail of the heavily marketed trip to space just days earlier by fellow billionaire Richard Branson in a Virgin Galactic spaceplane.
On Blue Origin’s rockets, tickets for its 11-minute thrill ride are initially expected to cost in excess of $300,000 per seat.
If an ephemeral experience with just three minutes of weightlessness seems a frivolous pursuit for people with money to burn, that’s not how Bezos sees it.
For him, space tourism is a way to advance and fund the technologies needed for his long-term ambitions: to make possible, in some far-off future, a sustainable space ecosystem where millions of people will live and work.
To achieve that far-reaching goal, he’s built at Blue Origin a company culture reflective of the Silicon Valley venture capital values that created Amazon and the other tech giants: an unshakable belief that technology linked with the capitalist profit motive will change the world.
Blue Origin engineer Gary Lai, one of the company’s first 20 employees and lead designer of the 60-foot-tall New Shepard reusable rocket that will boost Bezos into space, outlined in an interview the company’s rationale for space tourism.
“Even if the ticket prices are high, there are still a lot of high-net-worth individuals in the world … So there is a very healthy potential to fly very often,” he said. In turn, “Flying more and more will allow us to perfect those techniques, which will benefit all programs at Blue Origin.”
Bezos, on a 2016 press tour of Blue Origin’s Kent headquarters, likewise compared space tourism to the early aviators who flew biplanes around the U.S.
“The barnstormers who went around and landed in small towns and gave people rides up in the air, that was entertainment — but it really advanced aviation,” he said.
“You don’t get great at anything you do only 12 times a year,” Bezos said then, referring to the low frequency of NASA’s big space launches. “With the tourism mission, we can fly hundreds of times a year. That will be so much practice.”
For him and for Blue Origin, the New Shepard rocket — named after the first American to go to space, Alan Shepard — is the precursor to bolder steps later: putting rockets into orbit around the Earth, sending them to the moon and beyond.
Bezos sees space tourism on New Shepard as a steppingstone to that future.
“It’s not frivolous. It’s logical,” Bezos said in 2016. “It’s actually a critically important mission for taking this thing to the next level.”
After decades of waning public interest, excitement about space has been reignited over the past few years by the awesome technological innovation, as well as the marketing savvy, of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Bezos’s Blue Origin.
As a result, venture capital money is pouring into space startups, with almost $38 billion going to space infrastructure companies in the past decade, according to the latest data from Space Capital, a firm that promotes investment in the industry.
Bezos, who sold $6.6 billion of Amazon stock in May, has said he is spending $1 billion a year on Blue Origin.
But will the new public interest be maintained? The sheer boldness and engineering magic of the 1969 moon landing captured people’s imagination, but then faded as the years passed with little to show for it but dust and rocks.
In line with Blue Origin’s Silicon Valley-style perspective, Lai believes the privatizing of space and the profit motive will make it different this time. Human interest in space exploration is “almost primal,” he said.
He said NASA’s Apollo and Space Shuttle programs faded because they “required so much government support, and the political will to sustain them started to wane. They became very bureaucratic and started to lack vision.”
“What companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX and others are bringing is to make this a commercially sustainable enterprise so it will not require government funding and the biannual cycles of Congress to fund,” Lai said. “If we can make this a commercially sustainable enterprise, it will grow on its own.”
For that, space tourism will have to be profitable, he asserts.
“We will not get millions of people living and working in space, if it is not profitable.”
‘It will make money’
In Virgin Galactic’s quite different approach to lifting tourists into space, a crewed rocket-powered “spaceplane” is released from underneath a “mothership” at an altitude of 50,000 feet, then fires its engines and launches into space. It’s guided back to land by two pilots.
Branson projects building several global spaceports, enabling 400 flights to space a year on multiple models of the spaceplane.
On the Blue Origin rocket, in contrast, there’s no crew controlling the vehicle at any point, only passengers.
The booster rocket soars upward burning a mix of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Its exhaust is a trail of water vapor with no carbon emissions.
Near the top of New Shepard’s arc the six-seat passenger capsule detaches. It descends on parachutes while the reusable booster rocket is guided down to land vertically, its descent softened by reigniting the engine as it approaches the ground.
Three people will join Bezos on Tuesday’s flight, two of them by his personal invitation: his brother, Mark Bezos; and 82-year-old Wally Funk, one of the original female NASA astronauts trained for the Mercury missions who never got to go to space.
The fourth passenger is 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, son of the CEO of a private equity investment firm whose bid in Blue Origin’s charity auction had initially secured a seat on the second flight. Daemen was moved up after the auction winner, who had bid $28 million, chose to postpone to a later flight.
Rocketing into space is clearly a passionate dream for Bezos.
He often relates being captivated as a 5-year-old watching on TV as Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the moon. Bezos chose Tuesday for the flight because it’s the anniversary of that day 52 years ago.
On that 2016 press tour, he cited two reasons why humans need to go to space. The first, couched as an altruistic ideal, was to create an industrial ecosystem in space to preserve the finite resources here on earth.
The second might have come from his 5-year-old heart: “It’s a glorious adventure,” Bezos said.
Now it must also be a business, said Ariane Cornell, Blue Origin’s astronaut sales director, responsible for selling tickets to individuals who want to ride on New Shepard.
“Our founder has one of the most brilliant business minds around. So, this is a business. I can say that for sure,” Cornell said. “Absolutely. It will make money.”
She said more than 7,600 people registered for the company’s auction to buy a seat on the first flight. Since then, “I have been very busy on the phone talking to very serious customers from around the world.”
“While it’s a nascent market, I can tell you there’s a lot of pent-up demand to go to space,” she added.
After Tuesday’s flight Blue Origin has two more launches with passengers lined up for this year, “and many more to come,” Cornell said.
“People are clearly interested in paying more to be first certainly,” she said. “As more people go, we do see the price coming down.”
And she said the total package offered by Blue Origin is not so ephemeral. Ticket buyers will go to the Texas launch site to train for two days ahead of the rocket launch.
“All of that is part of the experience, not just the 11 minutes off the ground,” Cornell said.
Virgin Galactic, led by CEO Michael Colglazier who was previously president of Disneyland, similarly intends to market an overarching experience around the actual ride.
Cornell pitches the climactic ride to space as life-changing.
“You’re on top of a rocket. You’re going to get the rumble of the engine as you take off, you’re going to feel the G’s come on and you’re going to get that evolution of the colors outside those huge windows,” she said.
When the passengers unbuckle at the top of their capsule’s arc for 3 to 4 minutes of weightless floating and somersaults, they’ll have a striking view of the curvature of the earth, the blackness of space and the colors of the ocean-dominated planet that gave Blue Origin its name.
As for the brevity of that view, Cornell compared it to climbers summiting Everest, then very soon turning around to go back down.
“Still people do it,” she said. “I think people are going to want to do this for years and years and years to come.”
The space tourist market
Doug Harned, a financial analyst with Bernstein Research who covers the space industry, believes the space tourism business can make money near term.
“You can generate a lot of cash with these expensive tickets,” he said. “The operating costs are just dwarfed by what you can bring in revenues.”
Yet he worries the revenue might not be sustained for many years.
He said the two-and-a-half-hour webcast that surrounded Branson’s Virgin Galactic ride last Sunday, hosted by Stephen Colbert, fell flat and prompted scathing Twitter reviews.
“There was so much discussion about what an epic event this is,” said Harned. “Well, you go up there, you’re weightless for three minutes, pretty cool, and then come back down. People look at it and say, ‘Really, is it that exciting?'”
Taber MacCallum, CEO of Space Perspective, has a very different space tourism experience in mind. His Tucson, Ariz.-based company is touting “the world’s most radically gentle voyage to space” in a high-performance space balloon.
It will climb serenely over two hours to an altitude of just 100,000 feet, or 19 miles up, which is less than a third as high as New Shepard. But a successful unmanned test flight from Florida last month showed that’s high enough to view the curvature of the earth and the blackness of space.
Though it won’t provide the experience of weightlessness, Space Perspective’s enclosed passenger cabin — with a fallback safety parachute in case the balloon fails — will float in the stratosphere for two hours before it starts to descend.
MacCallum is targeting taking passengers up in 2024, though with just one test flight completed he concedes that’s “an aggressive schedule.”
“We will fly when it’s safe,” he said.
Risk and reward
In the meantime, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are ready to fly space tourists.
And Bezos has bigger plans in the works.
The New Shepard rocket shoots its passengers up high and then goes straight down again, called a suborbital launch.
That’s far short of how the more powerful Falcon 9 rockets built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX boost satellites and humans into a steady orbit around the Earth. SpaceX is expected to take a civilian crew raising money for charity into orbit later this year.
Bezos’ team is working on orbital capability. Blue Origin is developing the much larger, two-stage New Glenn rocket — named after John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth.
Now targeted to fly toward the end of 2022, New Glenn will take payloads and humans into orbit and eventually could go to the moon and beyond.
New Glenn’s first stage will land using the system developed for New Shepard. Its second stage will have engines derived from those of the smaller rocket. Its control software includes many of the same algorithms.
“New Shepard is a critical keystone part of all the programs that we’re doing at Blue,” said Cornell.
Blue Origin’s Latin motto — ‘Gradatim Ferociter’ or “step by step ferociously” — has brought steady success with no serious New Shepard failures. Still, there are dangers with space technology.
Virgin Galactic’s first spaceplane broke up in flight in 2014, when the crew prematurely unlocked the aircraft’s movable tail section. One pilot died and the second was badly injured.
In an April report assessing the financial risk for investors in Virgin Galactic, Harned wrote that a single catastrophic failure with paying passengers aboard, whether by Virgin, Blue Origin or SpaceX, “could have a crushing effect on demand for all.”
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in granting a launch license to Blue Origin, required it to take out $150 million in liability insurance for its flights. Any personal coverage beyond that is up to the astronauts.
To assess the risk for Bezos on Tuesday, no one is better placed than Gary Lai, who knows every safety system on the New Shepard rocket.
“From the napkin sketch phase through the final design and through most of the certification flights, I led that team,” Lai said.
Through 15 previous New Shepard launches, Lai’s team found problems and fixed them.
Blue Origin designed and flight tested an escape system that propels the passenger capsule to safety away from the main rocket if anything goes wrong on the launchpad or during the ascent.
Conducting hundreds of test flights, as Boeing would do for a new airplane design before putting passengers aboard, would be prohibitively expensive. Yet Lai is confident of success.
At this point, Lai said he has no sense of fear, only excitement.
“I feel we’ve done everything that we can to make this safe,” he said. “The only thing really to make it safer is simply not to fly and just stay on the ground.”
“But that is not what New Shepard was made for, to sit on the ground,” said Lai. “You need to fly.”