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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Jeff Bezos Goes to Space. Day One: Countdown

“You can go ahead and poke your head in,” Jeff Bezos told me. It was the summer of 2018, and he was showing me around the Blue Origin factory in Kent, Washington, where the rockets and the crew capsule for Bezos’ private space company are manufactured. We were standing by the hatch of one of two crew capsules on site, which he invited me to enter. I hardly had to squeeze to pass through the sizable hatch. Inside there were six seats, looking like pricey gaming chairs, arranged along the circumference of the cone-shaped capsule. In the middle was a large circular deck. A window was alongside each seat. And though you’d think it wasn’t necessary for an 11-minute journey, each passenger will get their own in-flight entertainment screen, which, Bezos told me, will show a much cooler version of the AirShow you get on an airline, with metrics on altitude, speed, and g-forces, as well as live views from various cameras on the capsule. I plopped down on one of the chairs.

This is what Jeff Bezos himself will do tomorrow, at around 7:36 am Central Time, after climbing seven flights of steps to enter the capsule on top of a New Shepard rocket. At 8 am, the world’s richest man is going to space. Accompanying him will be his brother, Mark; Wally Funk, an 82-year-old female aviation pioneer; and an 18-year-old paying customer. The other two seats on this New Shepard mission—the name Blue Origin gives to its suborbital rocket—will be empty on this flight, a surprising logistical anomaly for a businessman whose algorithms pack thousands of trucks each day to maximize every inch of space.

WIRED's Steven Levy is reporting daily from Van Horn, Texas, where Jeff Bezos will be among the first passengers aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket system. Read about the successful flight here.

There will be no pilot on board. “It’s all autonomous!” Bezos told me. I was kind of shocked: not even a flight attendant? Nope. The entire flight—from the rockets firing on the launch pad during takeoff, to the separation of the capsule from the reusable booster, to the engine cutoff around the time that the newly minted astronauts get about three minutes of ecstatic weightlessness, to the parachutes that deploy on descent—is all AI-driven. If within the first few moments there’s a need for the mission to abort, necessitating a hasty separation of the capsule, it won’t be a human that makes that decisions.

During my tour of the factory, what I wanted to know was, if I were a passenger, how could I be sure I got back to my seat in time? My nightmare would be that I’d be having so much fun floating around weightlessly that when the capsule began its descent I wouldn’t find my way back to my seat to get strapped in. I often can’t find the seat belt bucket on an Uber ride.

No worries! Bezos assured me that when the (automated) announcement tells the astronauts to take their seats, it will be a cinch to do so. He pointed to the abundance of handholds, colored blue so no one could miss them. “As long as you can grab onto something, you can maneuver yourself in the capsule,” he says. “It’ll probably be even easier to get into your seat in zero g. The other thing to note is that the onset of g-forces is actually very gradual.” Still, later on the way down, the pressure gets to 5 g’s so, buckling in is kind of important.

Back then, we were talking about theoretical Blue Origin ticket holders who would be paying a sum of maybe $250,000 or so to become space tourists. I didn’t imagine that Bezos himself would be on that first flight. And, I suspect, neither did he. But that’s where we are in the summer of 2021. The world is still in the throes of a pandemic, climate change is threatening vast parts of the planet, and we’re watching the world’s richest man escape Earth for 11 minutes. Barely more than a week ago, another billionaire owner of a space company, Richard Branson, floated around in his own rocket ship, lectured the world’s children on the inspiration they should draw from his feat, and popped a champagne cork on his return.

Bezos might say that escaping from Earth is the point. Because while Blue Origin is enthusiastically launching its space tourism business tomorrow, Bezos has been emphatic that his long-term goal is something far beyond checking “astronaut” off the bucket list for wealthy customers. He believes that humanity’s destiny will direct us to vast space colonies, ultimately supporting a population of a trillion humans. In the short term, especially in light of the ginned-up competition between Bezos and Branson, I wonder if that message might be lost, as civilian space travel becomes synonymous with the ability to pay, or to win the favor of whichever power broker owns the rockets.

I’m writing this from the rural West Texas town of Van Horn, which according to the road sign on Interstate 10, is home to 2,500 souls. It’s my third time to this small desert town, which is filling up past its limited capacity for what everyone says will be a historic launch. My last time here, I viewed a Blue Origin launch (albeit one where the only passenger was a test dummy named Mannequin Skywalker), so my own bucket list has that box checked already. I guess history is what drew me here, though I admit that it’s tough to justify exactly what makes this a major milestone, as opposed to a data point in future timelines.

The actual flight, in terms of technical achievement, breaks no ground. The first human suborbital journey, by Alan Shepard in 1961, was itself kind of a consolation prize, as the Russians had already sent astronauts into orbit twice. Branson has already been the first billionaire space magnate to ride his own ship. Elon Musk’s private SpaceX company is now routinely sending astronauts to the orbiting International Space Station. As with SpaceX, Blue’s rockets generally return to terra firma unharmed.

Yet you can smell something different here, and it’s not necessarily what the Blue Origin people are touting. During a Sunday press briefing, Blue Origin officials kept talking about all the firsts. The most compelling one, and certainly a great future trivia answer, is that this flight will include both the oldest and youngest person to travel to space. In addition to Bezos and his brother Mark—an Instagram post showed the older sibling delivering the suborbital proposal, Bachelorette-style—the crew includes Wally Funk, an invited guest named who once trained for the Mercury program, who will be the oldest person to sample space travel, and paying customer Oliver Daemen, who will be the youngest. The executives also claimed that they were the first commercial company sending a paying customer to space. That’s a thin distinction, since a company called Space Ventures has been arranging passage, for a very stiff fee, to the final frontier for years. One of its customers, former Microsoft scientist Charles Simonyi, even holds the distinction of being the first billionaire in space, twice traveling on a Russian space agency ship. (Sorry, Branson.)

Yet something important is happening here, and it’s all about Bezos. To me, his self-directed inclusion on the passenger manifest of New Shepard’s first human flight is kind of bonkers, and it demands our attention. He’s not only the world’s richest human, but probably one of the smartest. Whether you approve of his business practices or not, he built a dominant and innovative company that’s changed many lives, and he saw opportunities where others did not. Yes, he was thrilled by space travel since he was a teenager, but as an adult his résumé demands that we take him seriously when he says that he’s doing this for far more than lifting the human spirit. He’s into lifting humans. That is why we can’t write him off as a crank when he says that our destiny—because Gaia is sick and can’t deliver the resources to sustain us—lies elsewhere in the solar system. When he physically gets on a spaceship, he’s putting more than money where his mouth is.

That’s why the so-called competition with Branson, who blatantly switched the Virgin Galactic testing schedule once he heard that Bezos would rise on July 20, is an unwelcome distraction to Bezos and company. Blue Origin should have stuck to the high ground. Instead, while publicly congratulating Branson, Blue has done some sniping, especially to contend that, while Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity attained an altitude of around 50 miles, which is recognized as space travel by the FAA, it falls short of “real” space, the 62-mile Kármán Line that its crew capsule will cross. “None of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their names,” Blue Origin crowed in a tweet. (For the record, Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight 60 years ago went to 116 miles, almost twice as high as Blue Origin will go.)

In fact, there is something truly inspiring happening tomorrow: Wally Funk is going to space. I’ve been reading about her life—one of accomplishment, but with a dark shadow. She was the youngest member of the original Mercury 13, a group of women recruited in 1960 to train as astronauts for a private program. Funk aced every test, in some cases exceeding the performance of the male astronauts in Mercury 7. But when the moment came to bring the program into NASA, the government simply shut it down. The House held a hearing, and perhaps the most persuasive witness against women’s inclusion was John Glenn, who testified: “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. It may be undesirable.”

Funk never got over the rejection. By the time NASA accepted female astronauts, the qualifications had changed, so she had no chance to win a spot. She’s spent her life training pilots and investigating aviation disasters for the National Transportation Safety Board. But the hole in her life was her failure to leave the atmosphere. With time running out, she’d pinned all her hopes on Branson’s Unity. She was among the the first to commit to a $200,000 seat on his version of a spaceflight and became one of Virgin Galactic’s most fervent customers, traveling thousands of miles to the events that the company would regularly host to assure ticket holders that it still intended to keep its promise. Snatching her away from Branson and including her on New Shepard’s maiden human flight was a coup, and I can’t wait to hear what she has to say tomorrow after she fulfills her life-long obsession.

On the other hand, if there was a Kármán line for inspiration, the selection of Oliver Daemen as the first paying customer would fall short of it. Funk had to wait 60 years for her flight, but 18-year-old Daemen was lucky enough to have a father who runs a hedge fund, who bid some millions of dollars in an auction for the open seat. (Blue Origin is sending the money to space-related nonprofits.) We don’t know what the sum is, but the original winning $28 million bid came from an unknown participant who mysteriously backed out days before the flight, citing a schedule conflict. (Are we to really believe someone committed $28 million to go to space without checking the calendar? More transparency, please. Maybe tell us how much the now winning underbid was. Also, when will Blue Origin announce the official price for future customers, starting with the two more flights planned for this year?) Daemen might be a splendid young man, and his dad must be a cool dude to buy his teenage son a seat on a private company’s first passenger trip into space, but his inclusion invites a discussion about parenting, safety, and privilege that I’m not sure Blue Origin wants to ignite.

In any case, as liftoff approaches, all those issues fade into the excitement of the launch itself. There’s something reliably jaw-dropping about a huge spaceship firing its rockets and ascending to the heavens, and the fact that this has a Bezos on board (two of them) will make this irresistible to even the most jaded skeptic. It’s also thrilling to see the rocket itself return to Earth and land upright on its launch pad.

At the Blue Origin base 20 miles north of here, the rocket has already been certified for launch and is waiting in a huge hangar called “the barn.” Between the town and the base, a newly constructed “astronaut village”—I’m told the housing evokes the feel of a rustic resort—is hosting its first crew. They are completing their two-day training, a total of 14 hours of learning safety procedures, ingress, egress—and yes, how to get back to your seat when descent begins.


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