Bezos launches new era of space travel

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and three others traveled to the edge of space, allowing the world’s richest person to achieve his childhood dream.

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July 21, 2021 - 9:16 AM

Blue Origin’s New Shepard lifts-off from the launch pad carrying Jeff Bezos along with his brother Mark Bezos, 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, and 82-year-old Wally Funk on July 20, 2021 in Van Horn, Texas. Jeff Bezos and the crew are riding in the first human spaceflight for the company. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/TNS)

VAN HORN, Texas — The New Shepard rocket rumbled to life early Tuesday, catapulting Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and three others to the edge of space and allowing the world’s richest person to achieve a childhood dream.

Back on Earth, spaceflight enthusiasts saw the brief voyage as the realization of decades of promise — the beginning of a new era for space tourism.

“Space tourism is finally here,” said Alan Ladwig, author of the book “See You In Orbit? Our Dream of Spaceflight.” “It’s still going to be expensive, it’s still not going to be something everybody can do right away, but it’s a first step.”

Bezos’ suborbital flight — his company Blue Origin’s first crewed launch — came a little over a week after British billionaire Richard Branson along with five others boarded a space plane built by his Virgin Galactic firm and flew to the edge of space and back, making it there ahead of Bezos, who had announced his plans earlier. Virgin Galactic plans to complete two more test flights before it begins flying paying customers to space next year.

While Blue Origin flew its first paying customer on Tuesday’s flight — 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, the son of a Dutch private equity executive and now the youngest person to go to space — it has yet to announce seat prices or additional details about its commercial operations. During a livestream of Tuesday’s launch, Ariane Cornell, Blue Origin’s director of astronaut sales, repeatedly encouraged interested customers to email the company.

Already the company is approaching $100 million in private sales, Bezos told an assembled audience of guests, employees and reporters after the launch.

An auction for a seat on Tuesday’s flight ended with a winning bid of $28 million, but the ticket holder, whose identity has not been disclosed, postponed the trip, citing scheduling conflicts, according to Blue Origin. They will fly on a future mission. (Proceeds from the auction for a spot on Tuesday’s launch went to the Club for the Future foundation, which was founded by Blue Origin and is aimed at promoting science, technology, engineering and math careers. From those proceeds, 19 nonprofit organizations were selected to receive $1 million grants.)

But suborbital flights aren’t the company’s only goal; Blue Origin plans to build a family of larger rockets that could hoist cargo, satellites and people to orbit and beyond, eventually creating an ecosystem to allow millions of people to live and work in space. Bezos has previously suggested building cylindrical habitats with artificial gravity known as O’Neill colonies, after the physicist Gerard K. O’Neill, who pioneered the idea.

“Big things start small,” Bezos said Tuesday. “We’re going to build a road to space so that our kids and their kids can build the future.”

The seeming arrival of the era of suborbital space tourism after years of hype has fueled public debate around the increasing commercialization of space and the role that billionaires play in the industry.

After his flight, Bezos thanked Amazon employees and customers, saying, “You guys paid for all this.” He has previously said he has sold about $1 billion of Amazon stock a year to fund Blue Origin.

The high current price tag for spaceflight — Virgin Galactic charges as much as $250,000 per ticket — reflects the pattern of technological advancements in other fields, such as cellphones and air travel, said Timiebi Aganaba, an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society.

“If we look back at history … it’s always started off with the people with the most resources that take the first risk,” she said. “We should celebrate the innovations that have happened and continue the conversations about how we can bring society along so that it’s not just a joyride for the rich.”

The market for commercial suborbital spaceflight could include not just wealthy individuals, but also research entities, governments and even NASA, said Laura Forczyk, owner of space consulting firm Astralytical. NASA is already a major customer for Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which ferries supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station.

“What we’re seeing now is the emergence,” she said. “We do not know yet how quickly this industry is going to mature.”

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