Rocket Men: Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin

By Madeleine Ross

There's a new chapter in aerospace innovation, a second space race where players are no longer nations but tech billionaires with bold ambitions, fortunes to burn and boyish infatuations with the beyond. Here, we take a look at Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin's mission, achievements to date and what's to come.

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Net worth: About US$150 billion, making the Amazon founder the richest person in the world. Bezos sells US$1 billion a year in Amazon stock to fund Blue Origin.

Chief Activities: Founded in 2000, Blue Origin is an aerospace manufacturer and spaceflight services company. While it has completed work for Nasa on several small development contracts, it has yet to launch anything for a paying customer. However, it has acquired its first clients for orbital satellite runs.

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Mission: A kind of hybrid of SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin’s goal is to offer suborbital space tourism to paying customers, and to build larger rockets to deliver payloads into space.

Its New Shepherd reusable rocket and capsule is designed to take passengers to just beyond the Karman line and return to Earth. Bezos is building a much bigger orbital-class rocket called the New Glenn, which will carry people and payloads routinely into outer space and compete with Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy.

Like Musk, however, Bezos also has a loftier, long-term vision of millions of people living and working in the cosmos in a bid to “save Earth.” In May, he said a permanent human presence on the moon was an essential step towards achieving this vision. He sees the moon as a future base for heavy industry, allowing us to preserve Earth as a kind of national park, or at least zone it for residential use.

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Bezos supports the Trump administration’s policy for humans to return to the moon prior to going to Mars. “I don’t like to skip steps,” he said, “and I always thought that this idea of going to Mars without building a permanent base on the moon would end the same way Apollo did, where we would do it, there would be a ticker-tape parade, and then 50 years of nothing.”

Blue Origin is working on a concept for a lunar lander, called Blue Moon, which would be capable of placing several tonnes of cargo on the surface of the moon. Blue Origin has proposed developing Blue Moon as a public-private partnership with Nasa, but Bezos said the company would do it alone if necessary. 

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Approach: Bezos is famously clandestine about his activities, making announcements only when Blue Origin has achieved concrete goals. The aerospace company’s motto is “Step by step, ferociously.” It values “methodical innovation” and “incremental development,” putting it in sharp contrast to the very public restlessness of Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. 

Milestones: Pioneering the reusable rocket. Blue Origin pipped SpaceX by several weeks, achieving the world first when, in November 2015, its vertically launched New Shepard rocket deposited an uncrewed pod on the edge of space, with both successfully landing back on Earth intact.

Blue Origin’s goal is to be able to take up to six people at a time just beyond the Karman line and, while there, have them experience up to four minutes of weightlessness while looking out into space and back at Earth.

With Bezos’ slow and steady approach, the New Shephard has completed nine launches since its first flight in 2015 without any disasters, flying to an altitude of more than 100 kilometres and achieving a top speed of up to 3.75 times the speed of sound each time, and with the space capsule and its rocket booster making successful soft landings, enabling reuse.

In July, New Shephard’s ninth flight included a payload for microgravity research.

What’s next: Blue Origin plans to sell tickets for commercial flights on the New Shephard in 2019, according to the company.

Learn more about the other two billionaires involved in the space race: Richard Branson, Elon Musk

Illustration: KY Chan

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