After Richard Branson, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos also flies into space. A milestone in space travel? Or just a gigantic ego trip? The most important questions to start with…
Jeff Bezos really wanted to be the first. He announced his plans eight weeks ago: On July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the moon landing, he would fly into space at the tip of a rocket. Today, Tuesday around 2:30 p.m, the time has come: The Amazon founder and three companions actually take off from a launch pad in West Texas, provided the weather is good. On-site spectators are not allowed, but Bezos’ company Blue Origin will broadcast the spectacle via livestream.
With this, the currently richest person leaves the earth for a short time. So Bezos is sure to make an entry in the history books. Even if not the one the American had actually strived for: he actually wanted to be the first passenger on a privately organized flight into space. But with that, the British billionaire Richard Branson got ahead of him nine days ago: Branson flew in a rocket jet from his company Virgin Galactic up to an altitude of 86 kilometers, from where he and his companions marveled at the curvature of the earth and the black of space.
For Jeff Bezos this was undoubtedly a setback, not least for the ego. But the multi-billionaire — estimated fortune: more than 200 billion US dollars — still has big plans in space. Among other things, he dreams of large settlements in weightlessness. We have summarized here how today’s start fits these plans, what can go wrong and why Bezos’ actual competitor is not Richard Branson.
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Is Bezos really just second?
The question is essentially about where the universe begins. Jeff Bezos and the International Aeronautical Association would say: 100 kilometers above the sea. This is where the Kármán line runs, named after the Hungarian aerospace engineer Theodore von Kármán (1881–1963). By definition, it marks the distance from the earth at which an aircraft no longer generates enough lift in the thin air to continue climbing. Instead, it would have to move so fast that the centrifugal force familiar from the children’s carousel pushes it upwards — which keeps satellites and the International Space Station (ISS) in their orbit.
If you stick to the Kármán Line as the boundary to space, Richard Branson would not have been in space for 86 kilometers with his rocket jet — which Team Bezos has repeatedly emphasized in recent weeks. However, the Kármán line is considered obsolete : Depending on the air resistance of a body, it could be drawn at 80 kilometers. This is where both NASA and the US aviation authority locate the boundary to space. In this sense, Richard Branson was the first company boss to leave the world for a short time. Sorry, Jeff.
What does Bezos expect on his trip today?
As soon as the Amazon founder has taken a seat in the capsule at the tip of his New Shepard rocket and the engines ignite, everything goes very quickly. The rocket shoots into the sky at three times the speed of sound. After two minutes and 45 seconds, a small explosive charge separates the capsule from the huge engine. The rocket then falls back to earth and lands gently on the launch pad with the help of its control nozzles. The capsule, on the other hand, flies further upwards — like a stone that has been thrown into the air with great force. The rifle and its occupants can reach up to 106 kilometers.
The capsule then falls on parachutes back into the desert of West Texas, where it is supposed to land eleven minutes after take-off. Bezos and his companions spend a total of just under four minutes in weightlessness. The whole thing is fully automated, so the amateur space drivers don’t need a pilot.
Who are Bezo’s fellow travelers?
First there is Bezos’ six years younger brother Mark, a trained marketing specialist and the youngest child of the Bezos family. Apparently the two are close friends. The only woman on board caused a stir, because Wally Funk played a spicy role in the history of space travel in the USA: In the 1960s she was one of 13 female pilots who underwent privately organized astronaut training. The whole thing was intended as a protest, as NASA only allowed men to fly into space at the time — an attitude that the US space agency only abandoned in 1983. Instead, Wally Funk worked as a pilot and flight instructor for decades. Today she is 82 years old, making her the oldest person to have ever set out into space.
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The fourth place in the capsule is occupied by the Dutch millionaire son Oliver Daemen . It was actually supposed to fly into space with Blue Origin at a later date. However, a seat on Bezos’ flight became vacant at short notice: that of a mysterious bidder who had paid $ 28 million in an auction for the seat next to the Amazon founder — only to then cancel at short notice “for scheduling reasons”, as Blue Origin announced.
What does the fun actually cost?
So far, Blue Origin has been silent on what tickets for the four-minute trip into space should cost in the future. The $ 28 million paid in the auction for fourth place in the capsule is likely to be the upper limit.
In the long term, Bezos’ company will probably have to orient itself to the prices of the competition. Richard Branson, for example, claims to have sold 700 tickets for $ 250,000 each. However, that was a few years ago, today the price is probably higher. For the money, customers can expect almost the same experience as in the Blue Origin capsule, but with a little less comfort: The ride in Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo is significantly more shaky and probably also riskier , also because it is not the computer that controls it, but two pilots.
$ 250,000 may be a lot of money for four minutes of floating. Experts estimate, however, that this ticket price will not be enough to recoup the immense investments made by Branson and Bezos: Richard Branson has so far, according to his own statements, invested almost a billion dollars in his space tourism company Virgin Galactic. And Jeff Bezos has sold billions of dollars in Amazon stock over the past 20 years to keep Blue Origin alive.
Isn’t that terribly dangerous?
Bezos — like Richard Branson before — has received approval from the US aviation authority. It gives strict rules if you want to shoot people into the sky with a rocket. But if you look back in the past, there are always fatal failures in space travel. Almost one percent of takeoffs with people on board went wrong. For example, one of the pilots died on a test flight of Richard Branson’s rocket jet in 2014.
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Blue Origin has tested its short hop into space fifteen times without people on board. There are also emergency mechanisms that immediately separate the capsule from the rocket in the event of problems in the air. The loads during take-off and landing should also supposedly be controllable: During take-off and landing, for example, three times the gravity of the earth pushes the occupants into their seats. That is only half as much as the turbulent entry of Richard Branson’s rocket plane into the atmosphere.
What is Bezos aiming for with the campaign?
In and of itself, Blue Origin wanted the boss’s flight to be a historic success. Because in the end the company has always been left behind, especially in competition with the rocket forge SpaceX from Tesla founder Elon Musk. Musk and Bezos have long been bitter adversaries.
Not only before Bezos did the SpaceX boss develop reusable rockets that gently touch the ground again after takeoff, an innovation that makes rocket launches significantly cheaper. In addition, SpaceX rockets are now transporting NASA astronauts to the ISS — lucrative orders that Jeff Bezos would certainly be happy to carry out if his rockets and space capsules were wide enough. Most recently, Blue Origin was also defeated in a tender for the development of NASA’s new moon lander, one of Blue Origin’s main medium-term goals.
In general, the space industry has been fascinated by the two different strategies of space billionaires for years. While Elon Musk has mercilessly trimmed SpaceX for efficiency and above all wants to reduce the costs of space travel, Bezos is pumping one billion after the other into Blue Origin in order to get more modern engines ready for the market. So far, there has been no return.
Is it all worth it in the end?
It is the question that everyone asks who follows the PR spectacle surrounding the flights from Branson and Bezos — especially in times when people on earth are struggling with climate change and natural disasters. The answer probably depends on how faithful you are to the future — and how much you believe that innovations from science fiction are a blueprint for the future.
Both Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk founded their space companies with a clear goal: They want to enable people to live off earth. Musk is thinking primarily of Mars, on which he wants to found a colony as soon as possible. Bezos believes more in futuristic space stations, on which you can set the weather exactly as you want it.
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Whether these goals are worth investing large sums of money in space travel here today is a matter of dispute. Both goals are decades (Mars colony), if not centuries (huge space stations) in the future. What is certain is that SpaceX — and with some reservations also Blue Origin — make these visions of the future a little more likely with every successful rocket launch.
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