Jeff Bezos Really Flew to Space

Posted by on July 20, 2021 9:29 am
Categories: Everything Else

VAN HORN, Texas—Jeff Bezos really flew to space.

The richest person on Earth boarded a reusable rocket he dreamed up and funded, launched to the edge of space to experience a few minutes of weightlessness, and then came back down.

Bezos made the trip with three people who decided they trusted him enough with their lives: his brother, Mark Bezos; Wally Funk, a storied aviator; and Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old fresh out of high school. Before today, Bezos’s private space company, Blue Origin, had not flown its rocket with any people on board. By going first, Bezos wanted to prove that his vehicle is safe, and that Blue Origin is finally ready to make its 11-minute suborbital trips an experience people can buy.

The passengers flew on a rocket called New Shepard, named for the astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American to reach space. They followed a similar trajectory as Shepard did in 1961, but the Blue Origin experience is thoroughly, well, Amazon-like. Shepard, a military pilot, spent months preparing to fly his NASA capsule. Future Blue Origin customers need only show up in West Texas a few days before launch for some light training on their fully autonomous ride.

Most people know Bezos primarily as the founder of Amazon—in the least flattering version, an ultra-wealthy boss who overworks his employees and hasn’t always paid his share of federal income taxes. But for Bezos, space came first. He remembers watching Apollo 11’s moon landing on his family’s television as a 5-year-old, and as a high-school valedictorian, he spoke about the importance of space travel. If Bezos were anyone else, the story of his spaceflight, of a dream fulfilled, would be simple and sweet.

But if Bezos were anyone else, he wouldn’t have been able to fulfill this dream at all. He is the richest person on Earth, who controls the daily life of so many others here—not just his employees, but the hundreds of millions of us who partake, sometimes grudgingly, in the products he owns. Bezos benefits when we buy things (Amazon), eat (Whole Foods), read movie trivia (IMDb), rate books (Goodreads), manage our homes (Alexa), catch up on the news (The Washington Post), and go online (Amazon Web Services). We live in the world Bezos built. In that sense, as he floated over the Earth, taking in the beautiful view, he was surveying his kingdom, and adding one more dimension to his realm.

Richard Branson may have beaten Bezos to space, but Blue Origin is working on an even bigger rocket that could fly people and payloads well beyond the edge of space, into orbit around Earth. It’s also developing, with the help of a couple of longtime NASA contractors, technology to return American astronauts to the surface of the moon, by the 2024 deadline that Donald Trump set and that Joe Biden has so far kept. NASA originally chose Elon Musk’s SpaceX for this job, but while Musk joked about the situation—tweeting that Blue Origin “can’t get it up (to orbit) lol”—Bezos directed his staff to formally contest the space agency’s decision. SpaceX’s contract is now on hold.

For Bezos, today’s flight wasn’t just a joyride. The space billionaire still has more to prove. As a businessman, he already has a comfortable hold on the American way of life. As a spaceman, he wants a hold on its way of life among the stars.

The day before he flew to space, Bezos walked around his facility in the West Texas desert, dressed for the part of a cowboy. Big hat, shiny belt buckle, pointed boots—a very different man from tech-scion Bezos, in his puffer vest and aviator sunglasses. He remains buff, the result of an exercise regimen that, according to one of his friends, he took up several years ago so that he could be in good shape for spaceflight.

Bezos spent the summers of his childhood and early teenage years on his grandfather’s ranch in South Texas, fixing windmills, helping castrate cattle, and working his way through the science-fiction collection of the local library, as the journalist Christian Davenport recounts in The Space Barons, a book about Bezos and the other space billionaires. In college, Bezos was the president of a spaceflight club and attended lectures by Gerard O’Neill, the physicist who dreamed of space stations kept in perpetual motion to produce artificial gravity. “It’s always the science-fiction guys,” Bezos later said, according to Davenport. “They think of everything first, and then the builders come along and make it happen.”

It helps, of course, when the builders are billionaires. Bezos founded Blue Origin—named for the pale blue dot where humankind arose—in 2000. He was already extraordinarily rich, and he had little trouble buying up land in West Texas to start developing rocket technology in secret. When the company successfully launched its New Shepard rocket for the first time, in 2015, it announced the news a day later, through a carefully curated press release. Bezos was not in a rush back then; Blue Origin’s mascot is a tortoise, and for years Bezos, who would devote one day of his workweek to Blue Origin, was content to move slowly and let the hare in the industry, Musk, run loose. Occasionally they tussled. After Blue Origin launched a rocket and then landed it upright—a historic first in the rocket business—Musk praised Bezos, but made sure to point out that Blue Origin had reached only the edge of space, not orbit. When SpaceX achieved the same feat with an orbital rocket a month later, Bezos playfully ignored the distinction, congratulating Musk with a “Welcome to the club!” Bezos remained unperturbed as Musk raced ahead—until this year, when that NASA moon contract swung out of reach, and something shifted.

Now Blue Origin has made an effort to draw people into Bezos’s space world. The day before the launch, the usually press-averse Bezos gave interviews to the major TV networks while dressed in his cobalt-blue flight suit, with his fellow passengers at his side. Hours before the flight, in the middle of the night, dozens of reporters gathered at the Van Horn Community Center to board shuttles to Blue Origin’s remote facility a few miles north. Signs of the space company’s presence are sprinkled around the town—a banner stuck to the Cactus Cantina restaurant on the main drag, a mural the Bezos brothers painted on the side of an abandoned storefront. The locals speak of the Blue Origin site as if it were a mystical place, shrouded in a force field few can penetrate. It is certainly no Cape Canaveral; a safety briefing for reporters warned of the myriad dangers of the remote site, from hazardous materials to wild hogs. As the press bus drove out of the community-center parking lot and into the darkness, I realized that I had flown nearly 2,000 miles and driven 115 miles to get here, but I had no idea where Blue Origin was taking me. It felt like being invited to a reclusive, eccentric person’s home for dinner, only the host was going to launch into space during the main course.

Bezos’s entire endeavor, historic as it might be, seems to some people like pure excess, the whim of a leader who has lost touch with the average person’s sense of the world. Even some of Blue Origin’s employees have had concerns; in April 2020, as the coronavirus swept across the United States, The Verge’s Loren Grush reported that some workers felt that managers were pressuring them to keep up the pace, prioritizing the development of New Shepard over their health and safety.

As the day of Bezos’s flight drew closer, critics asked him to read the room, to pay more attention to Earth and spend money on problems closer to home. (Bezos did—a bit, by billionaire standards—donating $19 million from Blue Origin’s coffers to space-related organizations, and $200 million of his own fortune to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.) The criticism of space travel as frivolous is as old as the act itself; in the golden age of NASA, the ire was directed at a government deemed neglectful of its constituents; in the gilded age of private space tourism, it is aimed at billionaires seen as frivolous. But paying attention to Earth and looking toward the stars are not contradictory acts, nor does one come at the detriment of the other. As Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical physicist at the University of New Hampshire, recently wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, “We don’t actually face a choice between basic human needs and exciting journeys into the universe.” While NASA has some responsibility to get the public’s buy-in for its missions beyond Earth, the space billionaires don’t. They can try, as Bezos and Branson have done, but the sell is harder when part of their motivation is so obviously personal.

For Bezos in particular, selling the value of such a journey is a different challenge from any other he has attempted. People might not like how he runs Amazon, but they need toilet paper, or scissors, or a book, or some other mundane item that the company can provide, faster and with greater customer ease than anyone else. Amazon and Bezos’s other companies have population-size customer bases; Blue Origin, given the cost of a ticket—which remains under wraps, but is rumored to be several hundred thousand dollars—will have far fewer customers, at least in Bezos’s lifetime. No one needs to go to space right now.

But Bezos believes humankind will need to soon—not just the elites who can afford Blue Origin’s services, but all kinds of people. The space-nerd valedictorian told his classmates that people should move to space in order to preserve the Earth, and as an adult he still believes that. Of the space billionaires, Bezos is perhaps the most nostalgic. He has named his rockets after the spacefarers of NASA’s early years, and scheduled his spaceflight for the anniversary of the first moon landing. Bezos once organized a secret, expensive expedition to scour the seafloor off the coast of Florida in search of the discarded engines from the gargantuan rocket that lofted the Apollo 11 astronauts toward the moon. When the hardware was hauled onto the ship, Bezos was on deck, wiping the salty mud off the wreck like it was treasure. He has made himself a significant character in the story of American spaceflight, intertwining his achievements with those of spacefarers past. Bezos did today what someone else accomplished 60 years ago, but what Bezos can do next, now that he’s back on Earth, sets his achievement apart. Given an opening for business, Bezos will exploit it to its most ambitious, sprawling end. There, at the edge of space, what possibilities did he see?

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