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BORN ON THIS ROCK

The problem with Jeff Bezos’ road to space

Jeff Bezos wears goggles owned by Amelia Earhart which he carried into space at a post-launch press conference after he flew on Blue Origin's inaugural flight to the edge of space.
Reuters/Joe Skipper
Looking ahead.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published

Today saw the first flight by Blue Origin New Shepard rocket fulfill its promise by finally launching with passengers onboard.

The booster rocket and capsule brought Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, 82-year-old US aviator Wally Funk, and Dutch high schooler Oliver Daemen to the edge of space, putting a personal stamp of approval on the safety and reliability of the 60-meter booster rocket and capsule combo. The experience lasted just 10 minutes and 22 seconds, with the capsule reaching a peak altitude of 66 miles (107 km).

Now that Bezos has gone up, when will you be able to log on to Blue Origin’s website and buy your ticket at a set price? Not anytime soon, according to company executives at the launch. Thanks to a month-long auction that attracted 7,500 participants volunteering their own bids to fly, Blue isn’t feeling any pressure to start selling regular tickets. But you can email them, and if you’re serious, they’ll add you to the list.

Clay Mowry, Blue Origin’s head of sales, says that enough customer interest was generated by the auction to keep the New Shepard flying for years. The company expects to fly the vehicle roughly once a month in the near term, including uncrewed flights to carry experimental payloads, as it refines its space tourism operation. Each New Shepard vehicle is designed to fly 25 times; the company currently operates two, one for human flight and one for payloads, and is finishing building a third vehicle that will also be used for tourist flights.

The potential customers, Mowry says, are space enthusiasts, eager to slip the surly bonds for the first time. Many are pilots. Many are interested in performing some kind of science experiment during their flight. And of course, neither Mowry nor other Blue execs would comment on what these enthusiasts would like to pay for their trips, except to say there is robust demand.

Bezos said the auction attracted some $100 million in interest from bidders. And Blue Origin says it is making money on every flight thanks to research payloads and low-cost reusability. Still, the vehicle itself likely cost Bezos $1 billion or more to develop. It’s widely seen as a loss leader.

Space tourism only suits a particular crowd

It’s not easy to get to the site of the launch, near Van Horn, Texas. The closest large airport is in El Paso, a 2.5-hour drive from Bezos’ family ranch, a portion of which is sublet to Blue Origin. The space company has built a sprawling campus of test stands, tank farms, hangars, and a launch pad, along with accommodations for visiting space tourists to train for future missions.

Bezos has made focusing on the customer an obsession at Amazon. And for Blue Origin’s space tourism business, he is the perfect customer: a baby boomer who witnessed the conclusion of the Apollo program, whose childhood dream was to emulate the early astronauts. Judging by his excitement as he climbed out of the capsule, he was pleased with the product. “My expectations were high, but dramatically exceeded,” Bezos said after the flight, which saw him tossing Skittles into the mouths of his fellow passengers as they spun in microgravity.

And while all the passengers’ reviews were positive, Funk proved the most inadvertently truthful. “I thought I was going to see the world but we weren’t quite high enough,” she said; likely meaning she expected to see the entire planet rather than the arc of its sphere curving away against the vacuum of space. She also noted that with four passengers onboard, there was less room for fun microgravity maneuvers than she anticipated—an issue likely to be exacerbated when the company flies its full complement of six passengers. Still, the veteran aviator was ready for more.

Her obsession with space isn’t shared by everyone. While there’s a good chunk of the status-seeking super-rich who will want to ride on the New Shepard, and aerospace fans who will admire them, the public at large clearly has a hard time getting past a phallic rocket and its controversial owner to think through the potential benefits of this investment.

The problem with Bezos’ road to space

On one hand, the technical accomplishment here is real: No one has built an automated, reusable suborbital rocket before. On the other hand, it can really only go one place for a few minutes.

Bezos reiterated again today that New Shepard was designed to utilize technologies, like vertical take-off and landing or its hydrogen-fueled rocket engines, that don’t really make sense unless you are testing them out for a larger vehicle. And that is what Blue Origin is doing: building a rocket called New Glenn that, if it delivers on its promise, will be fully reusable and one of the largest ever flown.

“When I started Amazon, I didn’t have to build the postal service,” Bezos said. “There was already gigantic worldwide infrastructure to deliver packages. That infrastructure today for space is way too expensive and it doesn’t work.”

The problem is that Bezos was saying the same thing in interviews in 2017, and the New Glenn still hasn’t flown. Meanwhile, his rival Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, appears to have moved ahead on its own entirely reusable, extra-large rocket, Starship. And it has done so while make money launching satellites for commercial and government customers, and flying NASA astronauts into orbit—a far more challenging task than a suborbital flight.

In other words, it may not be necessary to demo your technology on a space tourism vehicle—unless the real purpose is living out your childhood dreams of going to space.

The necessity of Blue Origin’s particular path to larger and more important spacecraft will only be clear if and when those vehicles take flight.

“The first step in something big”

The other factor that could justify Bezos’ investment in this vehicle is an argument about how technology is popularized by the private sector. The cycle typically starts with rich people using it to display status, and as economies of scale improve, innovation becomes more widely spread. It’s the path that was followed by automobiles, airplanes, mobile phones, and personal computers, often with the help of a government subsidy.

“What we are doing is not only adventure, it is adventure and it is fun,” Bezos said, cowboy hat on his head. “It’s also important, because what we’re doing is the first step in something big. And I know what that feels like, I did it almost three decades ago with Amazon.”

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