Jeff Bezos will start his first trip to space, challenging Musk

Jun 16, 2021 Travel Space

In the battle of billionaires with rocket companies, Jeff Bezos will finally beat Elon Musk. Mr. Bezos, the founder of Amazon, said that he would take a trip to space next month when Blue Origin, the rocket company he founded more than two decades ago, conducts its first human spaceflight.

Bezos, a sci-fi fan since childhood, has an Interstellar-Esque hope for humankind's future in space. He has always wanted to go to space himself, in his own lifetime, since he was 5 years old and watched Neil Armstrong walk on the surface of the moon. "It made me who I am today," Mr. Bezos recalled. And he has been maneuvering toward that dream ever since.

Notably, Mr. Bezos' company announced last month that it was finally ready to put people on board for its next test flight, the 16th, on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Bezos, the world's second-richest person, founded Blue Origin in September 2000, with the goal of making space travel cheap, frequent, and more accessible, through reusable launch systems. He named his company's suborbital launch vehicle after Alan Shepherd, the first astronaut in American history to go into space, and the reusable heavy-lift launch vehicle after John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. 

"Ever since I was five years old, I've dreamed of traveling to space," Mr. Bezos said on Instagram.

But is that true?

There has always been a more prominent presence in the US commercial space industry - Elon Musk. It is hard not to compare the two richest men in the world. On the one hand, SpaceX has been a frequent success story, and the fearlessness of failing but starting over is more likely to be applauded. As for Blue Origin, the awe, the sighs, the disappointment, all a little less.

But this time, Jeff Bezos seems to beat Elon Mus as he will personally fly to space.


A childhood dream comes true

Space dreams take time to take root and grow. As a child and teenager, Bezos would spend more than one holiday at his grandfather's house in the countryside. There, he learned to vaccinate livestock, fix windmills and build bulldozers. He loved discussing space and technology with his grandfather, reading Star Trek, and was a big fan of Jared O'Neill.

At the age of eighteen, Bezos was already coming round to thinking about space. At his graduation ceremony, he made the astonishing statement that "the future of humanity does not lie on Earth. He spoke of space colonization plans, of building habitats like space hotels. It wasn't until he was 36 that Jeff Bezos, with a successful career, embarked on a "dream quest". Through Blue Origin, he wanted to build the infrastructure that would allow humans to reach the stars, first for space travel and then for space colonization.

Twenty years later, this "route" has finally seen its first manned flight. Bezos was bold enough to drag his brother along and they were to be the first passengers on the New Shepard.

Blue Origin is auctioning off one of the seats on Bezos’s flight. While Bezos ultimately hopes to make space travel cheap and economical by reducing the cost of rocket launches, it is assumed that this first ticket will not be cheap.

In 2018, Elon Musk unveiled plans to travel around the moon, with Japanese billionaire Tomosaku Maezawa as the first passenger to travel around the moon. Musk was also on hand to sell the idea that "maybe we'll both go." Whether or not we get to see Musk go around the moon in his own BFR (Big Falcon Rocket), Bezos is determined to get a head start.

The official Blue Origin website describes how Bezos will spend the nearly 11-minute trip.

First, the New Shepard takes off at Mach 3, near the KárMán line (100 km above sea level, just at the edge of space), and separates the capsule from the booster. The booster returns to the ground and lands on a landing pad 3.2 km north of the launch pad. The capsule will continue upwards, briefly crossing the Carmen line. At this point, passengers will be able to get a good view of the complete Earth beneath them in a weightless state through the capsule's huge windows. Eventually, the capsule will descend back to earth with the aid of a parachute at a speed of 1.6 kilometers per hour.

In November 2015, Blue Origin made its first rocket recovery. That mission was carried out by the New Shepard, which became the first rocket in the world to actually fly into space and recover on the ground. In the years since, New Shepard has completed 15 test flights using reusable systems, the most recent of which saw Blue Origin simulate the key steps to sending a man into space. With Bezos able to take the plunge himself, one would think that technically speaking, the New Shepard is no longer a problem.


What will it take to beat Musk?

This is Bezos' usual modus operandi.

Aware of his competitors' success and failures, Bezos is keen to set Blue Origin at the forefront of the space tourism race. "Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. In the long run, deliberate and methodical wins the day, and you do things quickest by never skipping steps," he wrote, referring to his company's tortoise mascot and motto Gradatim Ferociter — "Gradually, Ferociously" in Latin. 

But the news of his departure from the company made the world realize that Bezos was going to devote more energy and attention than ever before to a private company that had made its living on its own. 5 July was the day that Jeff Bezos stepped down as CEO of Amazon, taking a break from the day-to-day running of the company. "I'm an inventor, that's what I love most and that's what I do best, so I can create maximum value," he wrote. The "inventor" doesn't give himself a chance to catch his breath, and in a fortnight's time, he will be flying off into space.

Musk has a penchant for migrating to Mars, but in Bezos' view, it is somewhat unrealistic. In his step-by-step plan, he officially unveiled his lunar exploration project in May 2019. Just in time for NASA's high-profile cry of "Back to the Moon" and the announcement of the "Artemis" program. Initially, Blue Origin, SpaceX, and another contractor all received NASA grants, but in the end, NASA awarded a $2.89 billion contract to SpaceX, which came as a shock to Blue Origin.

Blue Origin's protest once again drew Musk's dislike, as he pointed out the 'sore spot' of Blue Origin: the company has yet to put a spacecraft into orbit with any of its rockets. However, Musk is not as bold as Bezos, and he has sent astronauts to the International Space Station twice. In terms of the process, there is a gap between the two companies that is visible.

While space travel was the original idea behind the creation of Blue Origin, Bezos later realized that it could not be achieved instantly. He needed to address the more critical reality of how to reduce the cost of going into space, which contributed to its success in rocket recovery.

In order to fly further into space, Blue Origin needed more powerful rocket engines. The BE-3 on New Shepard was the first new liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen rocket engine to be developed in the US in over a decade since the RS-68 engine. In August 2019, the BE-4 achieved 100% thrust testing and a sea-level thrust of 240 tonnes. At the time, there were only two available liquid oxy-methane engines in the world: the SpaceX Raptor and the Blue Origin BE-4. The transition from BE-1 (hydrogen peroxide), BE-2 (hydrogen peroxide paraffin), BE-3 (liquid oxygen liquid hydrogen), to the BE-4 (liquid oxygen methane), the stand-alone system has given its engine technology a very solid pedigree.

After 20 years of laying the groundwork, Blue Origin is getting closer and closer to the vision and Bezos make the biggest PR for the company in its history.

There is speculation that SpaceX's lead in the past was in part due to Musk's desperation and Bezos being distracted too much by Amazon. Now to catch up behind Musk, Bezos had to put more and more focus into it. 

Indeed, Bezos has done it and he is on his way to his next stop.

This is an article from WeChat official accounts GeekPark (ID: geekpark), written by Shen Zhihan, translated by Chris.