Jeff Bezos Goes to Space. Day One: Countdown

Back then, we were talking about theoretical Blue Origin ticket holders who would be paying a sum of maybe $250,000 or so to become space tourists. I didn’t imagine that Bezos himself would be on that first flight. And, I suspect, neither did he. But that’s where we are in the summer of 2021. The world is still in the throes of a pandemic, climate change is threatening vast parts of the planet, and we’re watching the world’s richest man escape Earth for 11 minutes. Barely more than a week ago, another billionaire owner of a space company, Richard Branson, floated around in his own rocket ship, lectured the world’s children on the inspiration they should draw from his feat, and popped a champagne cork on his return.

Bezos might say that escaping from Earth is the point. Because while Blue Origin is enthusiastically launching its space tourism business tomorrow, Bezos has been emphatic that his long-term goal is something far beyond checking “astronaut” off the bucket list for wealthy customers. He believes that humanity’s destiny will direct us to vast space colonies, ultimately supporting a population of a trillion humans. In the short term, especially in light of the ginned-up competition between Bezos and Branson, I wonder if that message might be lost, as civilian space travel becomes synonymous with the ability to pay, or to win the favor of whichever power broker owns the rockets.

I’m writing this from the rural West Texas town of Van Horn, which according to the road sign on Interstate 10, is home to 2,500 souls. It’s my third time to this small desert town, which is filling up past its limited capacity for what everyone says will be a historic launch. My last time here, I viewed a Blue Origin launch (albeit one where the only passenger was a test dummy named Mannequin Skywalker), so my own bucket list has that box checked already. I guess history is what drew me here, though I admit that it’s tough to justify exactly what makes this a major milestone, as opposed to a data point in future timelines.

The actual flight, in terms of technical achievement, breaks no ground. The first human suborbital journey, by Alan Shepard in 1961, was itself kind of a consolation prize, as the Russians had already sent astronauts into orbit twice. Branson has already been the first billionaire space magnate to ride his own ship. Elon Musk’s private SpaceX company is now routinely sending astronauts to the orbiting International Space Station. As with SpaceX, Blue’s rockets generally return to terra firma unharmed.

Yet you can smell something different here, and it’s not necessarily what the Blue Origin people are touting. During a Sunday press briefing, Blue Origin officials kept talking about all the firsts. The most compelling one, and certainly a great future trivia answer, is that this flight will include both the oldest and youngest person to travel to space. In addition to Bezos and his brother Mark—an Instagram post showed the older sibling delivering the suborbital proposal, Bachelorette-style—the crew includes Wally Funk, an invited guest named who once trained for the Mercury program, who will be the oldest person to sample space travel, and paying customer Oliver Daemen, who will be the youngest. The executives also claimed that they were the first commercial company sending a paying customer to space. That’s a thin distinction, since a company called Space Ventures has been arranging passage, for a very stiff fee, to the final frontier for years. One of its customers, former Microsoft scientist Charles Simonyi, even holds the distinction of being the first billionaire in space, twice traveling on a Russian space agency ship. (Sorry, Branson.)

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Yet something important is happening here, and it’s all about Bezos. To me, his self-directed inclusion on the passenger manifest of New Shepard’s first human flight is kind of bonkers, and it demands our attention. He’s not only the world’s richest human, but probably one of the smartest. Whether you approve of his business practices or not, he built a dominant and innovative company that’s changed many lives, and he saw opportunities where others did not. Yes, he was thrilled by space travel since he was a teenager, but as an adult his résumé demands that we take him seriously when he says that he’s doing this for far more than lifting the human spirit. He’s into lifting humans. That is why we can’t write him off as a crank when he says that our destiny—because Gaia is sick and can’t deliver the resources to sustain us—lies elsewhere in the solar system. When he physically gets on a spaceship, he’s putting more than money where his mouth is.

That’s why the so-called competition with Branson, who blatantly switched the Virgin Galactic testing schedule once he heard that Bezos would rise on July 20, is an unwelcome distraction to Bezos and company. Blue Origin should have stuck to the high ground. Instead, while publicly congratulating Branson, Blue has done some sniping, especially to contend that, while Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity attained an altitude of around 50 miles, which is recognized as space travel by the FAA, it falls short of “real” space, the 62-mile Kármán Line that its crew capsule will cross. “None of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their names,” Blue Origin crowed in a tweet. (For the record, Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight 60 years ago went to 116 miles, almost twice as high as Blue Origin will go.)

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