Everything to know about Tuesday’s Blue Origin space launch with Jeff Bezos
If all goes well, Jeff Bezos will spend four minutes on Tuesday suspended weightless in the lowest rung of suborbital space. For the world’s richest man, who’s funded his space company, Blue Origin, with at least $5.5 billion of his own money, that’s about $1.38 billion a minute.
Bezos is set to be the second billionaire space jockey, after Richard Branson rode a Virgin Galactic spacecraft on July 11 past where Earth’s atmosphere ends and the final frontier begins.
The new space race, some 60 years after the Cold War competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, is now funded by private capital and still could have decades more of development. Here’s what we know about the upcoming Blue Origin flight:
A vacuum of information, almost
Blue Origin—the space company Bezos founded in 2000—is private, if not secretive. Unlike rival Virgin Galactic, it doesn’t publish any filings that document its financial state or the risks to the company. In that way, it’s much closer to SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket company, which keeps its plans relatively close to the space vest.
But it doesn’t operate in a hermitage. Corporate filings from Bezos’s other company, Amazon, disclosed that Blue Origin bought $4.2 million in unnamed consumer goods from the online retailer last year, in addition to the direct funding from the CEO. For one, at least 19 patents are registered under Blue Origin, including one for technology that will aid the takeoff and landing of a vertical craft. It’s also won government contracts to take payloads into suborbital space on its aircraft, and others for using NASA’s technology. For one contract, NASA notes that Blue Origin failed to adequately detail conflicts of interest, and said it would have to rely on NASA’s funding—a curious admission considering that Bezos’s net worth is about 10 times the space agency’s annual budget.
And since it is a private company, its spending can follow the whims of its owner—for better or worse. For instance, Bezos reportedly paid as much as $20 million for a Blue Origin ad that was supposed to run during the 2019 Super Bowl. The ad was pulled, however, during a tabloid scandal that exposed a Bezos affair, when it was revealed that his girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez, had worked on the TV spot.
To the Moon
On July 20, the rocket New Glenn will shoot Bezos and his crew just barely into space, giving him the distinction of being the Virgil Grissom to Branson’s Alan Shepard. While Virgin Galactic plans on eventually growing suborbital spaceflight into a profitable industry, Blue Origin has made no mention of a profit motive—and in fact has bigger, more expensive plans for the future.
NASA currently plans on bringing humans back to Earth’s only natural satellite under what’s called Project Artemis, and Blue Origin will be working with SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, and other companies selected by the agency to do it. Artemis—the twin sister of Greek god Apollo—would be the first spaceflight that brings a woman and a person of color to the Moon, and the first time humans have set foot there in more than 50 years. Blue Origin is the prime contractor and will be responsible for building the reusable vehicle that shuttles the astronauts to the Moon’s surface. It’s unclear if the timeline for any launch has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but a 2019 announcement said that there are 25 planned test flights before a 2024 launch.
Space needs space
It takes an intense amount of energy to overcome gravity and fly into space. SpaceX’s Falcon9 rocket uses more than 902,000 pounds of fuel to reach suborbital space, for instance. One way to reduce the amount of gravitational pull is by launching near the equator—and Jeff Bezos has been buying plenty of land in one of the U.S.’s southernmost areas.
Blue Origin’s launch site is located on a 30,000 acre—or about 47-square-mile—tract of land in West Texas outside El Paso. (That’s about 7% of the 420,000 acres reportedly owned by Bezos.) To put that into perspective, that’s about three times the 17 or so square miles of land Amazon owns or leases, according to public filings. Still, there isn’t much for Blue Origin’s 275 employees or 50 contractors to do there. Residents of the nearby town Van Horn, where there’s a Holiday Inn and a McDonald’s for visitors, say that Bezos doesn’t come round to socialize that often.
A $28 million ‘scheduling conflict’
While Blue Origin has launched test flights of the New Shepard, this launch will be the first with a crew. Aside from Bezos, the passengers will include his brother Mark, and Wally Funk—an 82-year-old aviator who was passed over to serve as an astronaut in 1961 because she was a woman. There’s also Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old Dutch man whose qualification is being the son of a private equity CEO who bid on the seat.
While it’s unclear how many tens of millions of dollars Daemen spent on the seat, Blue Origin has booked at least one more flight. In fact, someone spent $28 million to occupy the high school graduate’s seat, but then backed out owing to “scheduling conflicts.” The bidder, whose name hasn’t been released, will apparently be on a subsequent flight. This first crew, however, will include the youngest and oldest people ever to fly into space.
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