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Bezos, space nerd boy, gets a chance to join the astronaut club

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Bezos, space nerd boy, gets a chance to join the astronaut club

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(Bloomberg) – Jeff Bezos’ journey beyond the edge of space will look very different from his supposed rival, Richard Branson.

Earlier this month, Branson traveled in the belly of a space plane, which was carried high up by another plane and launched into the air. It then shot 53.5 miles (86 km) above Earth and then slid down and landed in a conventional manner, on a runway.

On Tuesday morning, Bezos will go into space the old-fashioned way: on the tip of a rocket.

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Powered by a mixture of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, the New Shepard spacecraft will rise vertically from the desert floor at the Bezos Ranch in West Texas, travel 62 miles above, and then detach a crew capsule in which Bezos, his brother Mark and two passengers will enjoy about three minutes of weightlessness.

The thruster will return to earth first, accompanied by a sonic boom and at such a speed that at first it will seem destined to crash, until the engine is fired up again and, if all goes according to plan, descends into a cloud of dust and dirt from the desert. vertical. A few minutes later, again, if all goes well, the crew capsule will float close under three parachutes. Then Bezos, the world’s richest person, will undoubtedly emerge jubilant from the capsule door.

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A successful launch from New Shepard will represent something of a delayed triumph for Bezos and his private space company, Blue Origin. Bezos founded it in 2000 with his first earnings from Amazon and a vague notion of creating “an enduring human presence in space,” as early mission statements put it. Since its inception in a nondescript warehouse south of downtown Seattle, Blue has expanded its tenure, developing orbital and lunar programs, but often losing lucrative government contracts with Space Exploration Technologies Corp., founded by Bezos’s other rival for glory. space, Elon Musk. Blue Origin now employs about 3,500 people at its headquarters in Kent, Washington, and manufacturing centers in Huntsville, Alabama and Cape Canaveral, Florida.

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Regardless, Bezos has continued to cultivate Blue Origin’s more modest original program, New Shepard, with the goal of building a suborbital tourism business and restoring a swashbuckling sense of adventure in space travel. Over the years, the show has suffered technical setbacks, been delayed multiple times, and required such significant capital, all from Bezos, that insiders doubt it will ever be profitable. But for Amazon’s founder and CEO, who has harbored a lifelong dream of opening the space frontier, that may no longer be the goal. “New Shepard is more about selling inspiration and selling people on the journey Blue Origin wants to take, than it is about selling tickets,” says Dylan Taylor, CEO of Voyager Space Holdings, an investment firm.

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Bezos developed much of the original inspiration for Blue Origin as a child, watching the Apollo moon landings and spending summers with his grandfather, who worked for the Atomic Energy Commission and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the wing R&D department of the Pentagon. He delivered his high school farewell speech on building space habitats on orbiting space stations (“Space, the last frontier. Meet me there,” was his last line) and developed a fascination for Gerard K. O’Neill, a physicist who wrote about the development of orbiting human colonies that harnessed the power of the sun.

New Shepard was supposed to be the first step in getting people comfortable with that radical future. But there were unforeseen obstacles along the way. Bezos originally selected a fuel mixture of kerosene and hydrogen peroxide, a volatile and expensive substance. In 2011, Blue Origin lost a prototype spacecraft in a fiery high-altitude explosion over the nearby town of Van Horn, Texas, and Bezos authorized a switch to a hydrogen and oxygen fuel mixture. In 2015, Blue Origin lost another thruster during a pod release test when an electro-hydraulic drive unit malfunctioned as the thruster descended for its vertical landing.

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Unlike Branson and similar to Musk, Bezos has been a major contributor to New Shepard’s technical architecture, making decisions about details such as fuel tank diameters and layers of redundancy in safety systems, say engineers at Blue. Over the years, he has spent a considerable amount of personal time outside of Amazon at Blue, reviewing plans and participating in important technical meetings. But in 2017, impatient with the company’s slow progress, he hired Bob Smith, a Honeywell Aerospace executive, to be Blue’s first CEO.

Ever reverential student of space history, Bezos hoped to stage New Shepard’s first manned mission in July 2019 – the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, the first human landing on the moon. But Blue engineers say problems with the spacecraft’s subsystems and avionics and the perception of increased risk to passengers led to further delays. Smith also changed much of Blue Origin’s senior and technical leadership, bringing in veterans from established aerospace companies such as Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp.

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Blue employs two former astronauts: Jeff Ashby, who piloted the space shuttles Columbia, Atlantis, and Endeavor for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and Nicholas Patrick, who flew on Endeavor and Discovery. The company’s original plans required them to travel in New Shepard first, to assess the experience of paying passengers. “I don’t think we ever thought Jeff would fly first,” says a former Blue Origin engineer. But Bezos, like Branson, clearly believes it’s safe and that putting himself (and his younger brother) on the first mission sends a strong message. “For the company, it means that the owner may not be happy with the schedule, but this man trusts us,” says the former employee.

Still, a successful New Shepard flight with humans won’t drastically improve Blue Origin’s prospects. The company has yet to announce prices for regular passenger tickets, and it is unclear how quickly or even if Bezos will follow through on original plans to establish an affordable space tourism business. (Virgin Galactic plans to start transporting clients to suborbital space next year, for more than $ 250,000 per seat.)

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Some analysts wonder if Bezos has really moved on, to focus on his broader ambitions in deeper space, such as serving exploration missions to the moon. “I don’t think Blue Origin’s intention is to bring the masses into suborbital space,” says Laura Seward Forczyk, consultant and space industry analyst at Astralytical, who believes the most important goal is to demonstrate the technology and integrate it into orbit. by Blue. and vehicles from deep space.

One such vehicle, New Glenn, will compete in the market for orbital launches with SpaceX rockets like Falcon Heavy and Starship. It’s also several years behind schedule, as is its BE-4 engine, frustrating Blue’s close corporate partner United Launch Alliance, which relies on the engines for its new rocket, the Vulcan Centaur. And Blue Origin’s prospects for winning government contracts have not improved. In April, NASA awarded SpaceX a $ 2.9 billion contract to build a spacecraft that would return astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972. Blue Origin protested that decision and has lobbied Congress to increase funding from NASA and deliver a second contract.

But if anyone has the resources and the commitment to stand his ground, it’s Bezos. His fortune is currently valued at about $ 211 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, which gives him more than enough cushion to pursue even the most outlandish long-term visions. Colleagues say one aspect of that dream is turning Blue Origin into a “self-sufficient, multi-generational company.” If he smiles out of the New Shepard capsule on Tuesday, it will be at least a small step toward that goal.

© 2021 Bloomberg LP

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