When Jeff Bezos came back down from a few minutes in space Tuesday, he gushed about the beauty and fragility of the earth and said his space venture Blue Origin has already taken nearly $100 million in private ticket sales for similar space tourism rides.
During the status check with the control team after the capsule touched down, Bezos could be heard over the webcast transmission declaring, “Best day ever!”
At the news conference afterward, he also talked up Blue Origin’s grander ambitions to go beyond space tourism and build an infrastructure that will take future generations beyond this planet.
But when the richest man in the world thanked Amazon’s employees and customers “because you guys paid for all this,” he immediately stirred up a social media backlash against the space tourism concept — as Amazon customers and critics expressed resentment of his spending billions of dollars to enable the rich to go on a brief adventure.
Bezos may have headed off some of that ill will later in the news conference when he announced major philanthropy initiatives.
But the seemingly off-the-cuff Amazon remark drew some of the attention away from what was a technically flawless flight.
In a triumph for Blue Origin, it delivered four humans safely to space and back for the first time. And the reusable booster rocket was guided back down to land vertically in the exact center of the landing pad, about two miles from the launchpad.
Roaring upward, then a boom
Bezos has been pouring $1 billion a year into Blue Origin, which has grown rapidly to employ about 3,700 people, of which about 2,600 are at the Kent headquarters.
About 400 core engineers based in Kent developed the New Shepard rocket that took Bezos to space along with three other new astronauts:
* His younger brother, Mark Bezos
* 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, son of a private equity CEO who bought the ticket for an undisclosed price
* And irrepressible 82-year-old Wally Funk, one of the original female astronaut candidates for NASA who qualified for the Mercury missions but never got to go to space.
The brief flight rose into the sky at 6:12 a.m. Pacific Time in the remote west Texas desert near the town of Van Horn.
To the media and Blue Origin employees gathered in the cool morning air at a vantage point four miles from the launchpad, a bright conflagration of yellow flame around the base of the rocket signaled liftoff.
That was followed, as the sound caught up with the light, by the roar of the engines.
The rocket rose slowly at first, but gathered momentum, passing the speed of sound and eventually reaching a maximum speed of 2,233 mph.
The roar increased to a deep rattling, felt in the chest and the eardrums. A twisting contrail of water vapor formed high up in the rocket’s wake.
About two minutes after liftoff, what had become a tiny speck was lost to the naked eye and everyone on the ground switched to watching the live webcast on nearby screens.
On the way up, the four inside encountered 3g pressure pushing into their chests, and briefly on the way down, 5gs, or five times the force of gravity.
In the news conference afterward Mark Bezos jokily recalled barely being able to get the words out when, at that precise 5g moment, mission control asked how he was doing.
Jeff Bezos said his high expectations for the trip “were dramatically exceeded” and that he was awed looking at the planet below both by earth’s beauty and its fragility.
Throughout the voyage, the astronauts’ excited whoopings could be heard over the radio channel back to mission control.
Shortly after the booster engines cut off, the capsule separated from the rocket and followed a parabolic arc to an altitude of 351,210 feet — or just over 66 miles up.
Inside the capsule, Bezos and his companions unbuckled and went tumbling weightlessly around the capsule, which he described as a serene, peaceful and natural experience.
During their three minutes or so of weightlessness, they cheered, turned flips, and tossed Skittles and Ping-Pong balls to each other.
Funk, who was rarely seen without a grin Tuesday morning, sounded especially gleeful about finally trekking to the edge of outer space: “Whoo hoo!” she hollered repeatedly.
Members of Blue Origin’s global sales team watched on the webcast screen and exclaimed excitedly as they glimpsed Funk wave out her window approaching the earth.
The booster came down first in a controlled stable vertical descent. As it fell toward earth at 2,500 mph a loud crack rent the air, a sonic boom that made all on the ground jump, even the Blue Origin staffers who had said it was coming.
After a second, more muffled boom, the booster rocket slowed down and landed gently as designed at the center of the landing pad.
Meanwhile, the capsule with its four passengers was free-falling toward earth. After the big parachutes opened, the capsule slowed its descent as it approached the ground and touched down.
The entire flight lasted just over 10 minutes.
After the capsule was opened by a ground crew, Bezos emerged first, waving and high-fiving. The four new astronauts were then surrounded and hugged by Blue Origin employees, including CEO Bob Smith, and family and friends, including Bezos’ mother and his new partner, Lauren Sanchez.
Grander plans for space ahead
In the immediate future, the flight marks the realization of a once-fanciful idea: space tourism, now real at least for the very wealthy.
During the news conference, Bezos revealed that Blue Origin has sold nearly $100 million in tickets to would-be space tourists.
He wouldn’t disclose the ticket pricing, which is perhaps negotiated client by client, but rides are expected to cost between $300,000 and $500,000.
Blue Origin plans two more flights with paying customers this year and to increase the frequency of flights after that.
“We’re going to have to build more boosters to be able to fly more frequently,” he said.
Bezos also touted the brief excursion just above the stratosphere as a small step with much more significance than space tourism.
“It is an adventure. And it is fun. But it’s also important,” he said. “Big things start small.”
The grandiose project he outlined is to build upon the straight-up-and-down tourist flights on New Shepard, to develop bigger, more powerful rockets that can orbit the earth, land on the moon, and go further into the solar system.
We’re going to build a road to space so that our children and their children can build the future,” he said. “This is going to take decades.”
However, when it comes to building space infrastructure, Tuesday’s flight still leaves Blue Origin and Bezos trailing rival Elon Musk and his company SpaceX.
Musk didn’t bother with the tamer suborbital phase of spaceflight New Shepard demonstrated Tuesday. Instead, he went directly to developing the larger rockets needed to launch payloads and people into orbit around the earth.
Blue Origin, Bezos made clear, is committed to that same path, even though it’s behind. He mentioned the bigger New Glenn rocket for orbiting the earth and traveling to the moon that is expected to fly next year, and an even bigger rocket called New Armstrong coming later that will travel farther into space.
Bezos in the past has pitched development of this new space technology as essential for the survival of humans.
In a 2019 speech, he pointed to the earth’s finite energy resources and said people have to start building the infrastructure now to later explore the solar system so that its resources can be used to sustain the earth and contain a vastly larger population.
He went on to conjure a very-far-out vision of “millions of people living and working in space,” not on any of the solar system’s deeply inhospitable other planets but in space colonies inside massive man-made structures that feature artificial gravity.
The politics of inequality
Whether fanciful space-based colonies are visionary or delusional, they are at best a very long way off. On Tuesday, the here and now created a political distraction.
Advocates for the safety of Amazon warehouse workers and other critics of the company have largely painted Bezos’ trip to the edge of space as emblematic of rising global inequality — and of Amazon’s unequal treatment of warehouse workers, who in America are mostly people of color.
The Athena Coalition, a group of activists that calls attention to what it says are Amazon’s abuses, took the occasion of the Blue Origin launch Tuesday to tweet about the disproportionate effect of pollution from Amazon warehouses on Black, Spanish-speaking and Native American communities in the United States.
Bezos’ remarks about Amazon employees paying for the space venture by making his fortune with their labor exacerbated this controversy.
His later remarks about how he’s using that fortune may help to deflect just a bit of the criticism.
He said now that he’s no longer running Amazon day to day, he will split his time between Blue Origin, his Bezos Earth Fund, a charity focused on finding solutions to the impacts of climate change, and some other activities still undecided.
And at the end of the news conference he gave away $100 million each to two people tasked with spending it on charities of their choice.
Van Jones, the CNN host and news and political commentator, said he’ll use his $100 million on grassroots organizations helping the poor.
And restaurateur José Andrés, well known for his World Central Kitchen charity that delivers food to people after natural disasters, promised to use his $100 million to fight global hunger and its causes.
Bezos took only a few questions from the press, none of which directly addressed the controversy around his wealth and his choices in how to spend it.
Instead, he reveled in the day’s technical achievement and the thrill of his ride.
Asked at the news conference whether he planned to fly to space again, Bezos responded, “Hell yes. How fast can you refuel that thing? Let’s go.”
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