Science·Analysis

Jeff Bezos ready to take rocket ride, a small step toward his fantastical space vision

Amazon founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos auditions his version of space tourism for a wider audience on Tuesday morning when he hops aboard a Blue Origin rocket along with three others. If it's a vanity project, it's one he's been pursuing since his youth.

Blue Origin's Tuesday launch will look significantly different than Virgin's earlier this month

Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos is shown at a 2017 event in Colorado showing a mockup of the New Shepard rocket booster and capsule. (Isaiah J. Downing/Reuters)

Amazon founder, and by some measures the world's richest man, Jeff Bezos will audition his version of space tourism for a wider audience on Tuesday (9 a.m. ET), when he hops aboard a Blue Origin rocket along with three others.

It comes just after Virgin Galactic showman Richard Branson arguably stole Bezos's thunder by snagging a ride on a Virgin Unity space plane on July 11 that neared the edge of space.

But there's reason to believe Bezos comes by his space dreams more earnestly.

Branson did not announce his intentions until after Blue Origin revealed the Bezos date, which comes exactly 52 years after Apollo 11 landed on the Moon.

Though Branson's Virgin Orbit has sent craft into orbital space to launch satellites, its splashy event was all about promoting the possibility of regular, albeit expensive, suborbital space tourism.

For the American Bezos, space tourism has often seemed a means to much more ambitious goals, including sending people to the moon. 

Both Bezos and Branson have claimed that watching the Apollo 11 milestone fired their space ambitions, but the British entrepreneur only said this retrospectively, including in his memoirs. Branson was certainly not being asked about his designs on space when his only major company, Virgin Records, was guiding the Sex Pistols.

Meanwhile, Bezos's grandfather Lawrence Gise's career included stints at the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and in the areas of space technology and ballistic missile defence for the Department of Defence. Bezos has often waxed nostalgic about summers spent at Gise's ranch, where the pair would fix and rebuild all manner of machinery.

WATCH \ A previous Blue Origin launch, without passengers:

Blue Origin successfully launches and lands uncrewed rocket and capsule in new test

5 months ago
2:48
Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin completed a test of its reusable rocket New Shepard, along with a successful landing of its crew capsule in Texas 2:48

There's also documentation of Bezos's ambitions as far back as 1982, when he was among those featured in a Miami Herald profile of local high school valedictorians. The Palmetto High grad aimed to "build space hotels, amusement parks, yachts and colonies for two or three million people orbiting around the earth," per the Herald. "His final objective is to get all the people off the earth and see it turned into a huge national park."

"The whole idea is to preserve the earth," Bezos told the newspaper.

Long-term space vision

What's remarkable, given the penchant for current and former Amazon executives to rhapsodize in interviews about Bezos's ability to adapt strategically at his most famous company, is how little his space visions have changed.

At a 2019 event to introduce Blue Origin's lunar module, Bezos insisted that population growth and the concomitant energy consumption that humans require will make the Earth an increasingly miserable place to live for future generations, a situation marked by scarcity and rationing of natural resources.

"We have to save this planet, and we shouldn't give up a future for our grandchildren's grandchildren of dynamism and growth," he said.

In contrast to Musk, of SpaceX, who is animated by the prospect of colonizing Mars, Bezos envisions kilometres-long, climate-controlled structures in free space propelled by rotational gravity. Much heavy industry and resource mining will one day take place in space, he says, helping preserve the Earth, a vision inspired in part by the late Princeton futurist Gerard O'Neill.

Bezos speaks May 9, 2019, in Washington, D.C., with a giant screen showing an artist rendering of what a space colony might one day look like. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

On social media, Bezos, Branson and Musk have come in for criticism, and even scorn, for their space endeavours given their immense personal wealth. They appear to have taken advantage of loopholes to limit their tax exposure, with ProPublica reporting recently, after obtaining a trove of IRS documents, that Bezos paid no federal income tax in 2007 and 2011.

As well, even semi-regular space tourism flights would have a deleterious impact on the environment. But the three men have each made significant climate change pledges, which will no doubt be heavily scrutinized in the coming years, and it's important to note that NASA embarked on 135 space shuttle flights from 1981 to 2011, never mind the pre-shuttle activities going back nearly two decades before that.

In Bezos's case, he touts the reusability of Blue Origin's rockets. Otherwise, he's said, it would be like "driving your car to the mall and then throwing it away after one trip."

Billionaires in space enabled by U.S. government

Some of the criticism has been divorced from how we got to this point.

Acting after a comprehensive review of NASA operations, U.S. President Barack Obama decided it was no longer feasible for the venerated space agency to tackle every U.S. ambition without a heavy dose of private sector involvement. While Blue Origin, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic were all established by then, it helped spur their activities.

Blue Origin and SpaceX in particular engaged in competitive bidding for a host of NASA and Department of Defence contracts, and on a smaller scale, there are Canadian companies that have a vested interest in the expansion of the private space industry.

Bezos's launch will lack the flash of the Branson show and will be significantly different in form. Blue Origin's 18-metre-high New Shepard lifts off from a standing position on a launch pad, like traditional rocket launches. With Virgin Galactic, a rocket-powered spaceplane was dropped from a carrier plane in mid-air, placing a heavy onus on the jet carrier's two pilots. 

New Shepard will take the passengers some 100 kilometres, where it is programmed for capsule separation, with parachutes deploying when the capsule re-enters the Earth's atmosphere. Virgin Galactic's flight reached 86 kilometres above Earth.

While both involve a similar amount of time for passengers with respect to weightlessness, Blue Origin's capsule boasts more expansive windows for the view, and its rocket boost makes the duration of its flight, at about 12 minutes, a fraction of the Galactic timespan.

Wally Funk has dreamt of going to space for more than six decades. On July 20, 2021, the American pilot and member of the so-called Mercury 13 will finally achieve that dream — thanks in part to Amazon founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos. 9:29

Bezos is part of an all-civilian crew that includes his younger brother Mark, 82-year-old Wally Funk — a female aeronautics trailblazer in a time of unequal opportunity — and Dutch teenager Oliver Daemen. 

Ultimately, Bezos is going for a trifecta of sorts. After Amazon built the e-commerce platform most favoured by customers and third-party sellers, its Amazon Web Services established the infrastructure that powers a range of network, cloud computing and data service needs of organizations as diverse as Netflix, Shell and Airbnb.

Bezos has stepped down from a day-to-day Amazon role and says in his lifetime Blue Origin will lay down the track toward the goal of building space colonies. While Bezos has pledged to put much of his Amazon-earned wealth — Forbes estimates his net worth at $208 billion US — toward Blue Origin activities, the company will need a revenue stream of high-paying customers.

As for the rest?

"I don't know," Bezos has said. "That's for future generations to figure out the details."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Iorfida

Senior Writer

Chris Iorfida has worked in TV news, radio, print and digital in his journalism career. He has been with CBC since 2002 and written on subjects as diverse as politics, business, health, sports, arts and entertainment, science and technology.

With files from Reuters

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