Jeff Bezos Will Leave Richard Branson Behind in the Dust

Jeff Bezos Will Leave Richard Branson Behind in the Dust
The Amazon billionaire is now set to deliver the first passenger rides to the border of space. But space tourism will never be more than a quick (and risky) thrill for the rich.
Jun 4 2017

Let’s face it: by any rational measure so-called space tourism is a preposterously frivolous idea. Nonetheless, hundreds of thrill-seekers were willing to pay around $2,300 a minute for the ride as soon as Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture was launched in 2005. The first passenger-carrying flight was supposed to happen 10 years ago, in 2007. It slipped to 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013…now…maybe… next year. 

But if once it seemed like an idea whose time would never come (leaving aside for the moment the issue of whether it ever should) Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin team—not Branson—now seems more than ever likely to be the first to deliver.

The two projects could not be more different. One, Galactic, is a hybrid of rocket and flying machine, the other, Bezos’s New Shepard, is purely ballistic, a rocket ride followed by descent in a six-passenger capsule under three parachutes.

Bezos has been testing his system in the remote tundra of west Texas, with five virtually flawless flights between November 2015 and October 2016.. Moreover, he has so much confidence in his approach that after several years of under-the-radar development he has become uncharacteristically boosterish.

Whereas Branson over the years staged numerous junkets for the media in which success was claimed to be imminent, this April Bezos staged his first preview of the ride on Blue Shepard at the annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs with the warning that, “It’s a mistake to race to a deadline when you’re talking about a flying vehicle, especially one that you’re going to put people on.”

Notwithstanding that caveat, it was a spectacular show. His 50-foot launch rocket was trucked from his base at Van Horn in Texas, a journey that required 16 hours of restricted roads to clear the way. And Bezos himself appeared inside a full-size mockup of the capsule peering out through one of its outsize windows.

The six passengers will sit in recliners aligned with those windows, strapped in for the ascent and then allowed to unstrap and enjoy around four minutes of weightless floating in the capsule before once more buckling up for the descent and re-entry when the g-force will be at its greatest, more than 5g—that is five times the gravitational force felt on earth. There will be no pilot on board: passengers will be overseen and guided by a flight director on earth. 

Although the rocket and capsule combination mimics the dynamics of the NASA space program that took men to the moon, Blue Shepard blasts aloft on rockets that are re-usable, a virtue that Bezos has stressed. Once free of the capsule the rocket makes its own controlled return to earth, braking at the last minute to a soft landing. The capsule, descending under the parachutes, also makes a soft landing, slowed to 3 mph by small braking rockets.

In less than a year of testing, Bezos has been able to do something that Branson has failed to do in more than a decade: demonstrate proof of concept.

And now it is the Virgin Galactic concept itself that is in question, the use of two vehicles, a mother ship and a smaller spaceship slung under it. The mother ship releases the spaceship at around 40,000 feet and, in theory, the spaceship’s own rocket motor pushes it past the technical boundary between the stratosphere and space called the Karman Line, at around 62 miles high. 

The New Shepard test flights have already achieved that—reaching a height of 63.2 miles. The highest altitude reached so far by Virgin Galactic is 13.5 miles, one fifth of the target. 



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