Blue Origin's First Human Spaceflight — Bezos, Branson, And The “Billionaire Space Race”

Karan Kamble

Jul 20, 2021, 05:34 PM | Updated 06:56 PM IST

Jeff Bezos along with brother Mark Bezos, customer Oliver Daemen and aviator Wally Funk are flying to space on 20 July. (Photo: Blue Origin/Facebook)
Jeff Bezos along with brother Mark Bezos, customer Oliver Daemen and aviator Wally Funk are flying to space on 20 July. (Photo: Blue Origin/Facebook)
  • Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is part of a four-member crew flying to space on Tuesday, 20 July.
  • The Blue Origin flight follows the successful Virgin Galactic spaceflight carrying Richard Branson and crew just days ago.
  • Update: The maiden Blue Origin human flight to space and back has been completed successfully.

    After Richard Branson over a week ago, it’s now Jeff Bezos’ turn to fly to the edge of space and back.

    Along with the rest of the crew — 18-year-old student and Bezos space venture Blue Origin’s first paying customer Oliver Daemen, the younger Bezos brother Mark Bezos, and 82-year-old Mercury 13 aviator Wally Funk — the Amazon founder will lift up to the skies on board his space company’s reusable suborbital rocket New Shepard on Tuesday (20 July).

    The day chosen for this flight is historic — on this day in 1969, American commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo lunar module “Eagle” on the surface of the Moon and kicked open the door to human lunar exploration.

    In comparison, Bezos will accomplish a much humbler feat, though still significant for him and the other people on the spaceship as well as to the prospects of his private space company Blue Origin.

    New Shepard flight director Steve Lanius revealed what to expect. The launch is scheduled to take place today (20 July) at 8 am central daylight time (6.30 pm Indian standard time). The roll-out will begin earlier, at midnight. Preparations involving such things as propellant load will begin hours before launch. Astronauts will board the spacecraft 45 minutes before and strap in to prepare for launch. The hatch will be closed 21 minutes after and it will then just be a matter of time before lift-off.

    The rocket will be launched with the four-member crew from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One, which is situated in a remote location in the West Texas desert, United States (US). It will mark the company’s 16th New Shepard flight to space, but only the first one ferrying astronauts.

    According to the plan, the rocket along with the capsule will lift off towards the “Kármán line” — named after Hungarian physicist Theodore von Kármán and recognised as an imaginary boundary separating the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, which is said to be 100 km above mean sea level.

    About 75 km into the flight, the capsule will separate from the rocket and both craft will proceed to cross the 100 km Kármán line until they reach the apogee, or the highest point away from Earth, before beginning the descent down to Earth. During their brief time in space, the astronauts on board the capsule will experience three to four minutes of weightlessness or zero gravity. Given that the vehicle is autonomous, the crew will have little to do other than to soak in the thrilling experience.

    Interestingly, Funk and Daemen will become recognised, in the process, as the oldest and youngest persons to ever fly to space respectively.

    During the descent, three large parachutes will be deployed before the retro thrust system will kick in moments before landing to enable safe landing. The redundancies and back-up systems built into the capsule will ensure crew safety in case of potential deviations from the plan.

    The entire flight is estimated to last about 11 minutes.

    “I think one important aspect of all this is that we’re not just flying people who are designated crew members. We’re also flying, of course, our first paying commercial customer, and the fact that we’re doing this on a private vehicle that is completely privately funded, from a private launch site is just something that hasn’t been done in this industry before,” Audrey Powers, VP, Mission & Flight Operations, said in the pre-launch briefing.

    The customer, Daemen, completed high school last year and has been working to get his private pilot licence. He is set to study physics at the University of Utrecht later this year. He got the opportunity to sit on Blue Origin’s first human flight after the original, anonymous winner of the $28 million auction pulled out of the flight due to scheduling conflicts.

    The other crew member besides the Bezos brothers is Funk. She had a shot at flying to space a long time ago, but it wasn’t to be. She had trained as an astronaut along with 12 others as part of the Women in Space programme in the 1960s, later christened as “Mercury 13”. But the programme was cancelled and the women graduates never flew to space.

    Over the years, Funk still picked up a couple of historic firsts as the first female inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration and the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.

    After a long wait, she is now set to fly on the New Shepard. She is said to have been invited personally by Bezos to take the flight at no cost.

    The Blue Origin flight is coming in just nine days after the Virgin Galactic flight that went to space — or near-space, depending on how one defines the Earth-space boundary — on 11 July.

    Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson was part of a crew that flew on board VSS Unity, registering the company’s fourth rocket-powered spaceflight and the fourth with crew.

    However, the Unity 22 flight carried a full crew, made up of two pilots and four mission specialists, including Branson.

    In the weeks leading up to as well as after Branson’s flight, much criticism has been directed against this idea of the “billionaire space race” (here, here, and here as examples). The term refers to Bezos, Branson, and Elon Musk’s private spaceflight ambitions, which are perceived by critics to be wasteful ventures of the ultra rich.

    The argument goes that the amount of money being invested in flying to space — whether for tourism or other purposes — is better spent on the ground, towards causes like eradicating poverty, mitigating climate change, and improving public health, for ‘the planet needs saving’.

    Keeping aside the fallacious notion that space investment eats into other kinds of investment, what may seem like goals at odds with each other — investing in space rather than investing on the ground — are aligned to a large extent and have societal benefits.

    For decades, the development of space technology has created umpteen benefits for the general public and in day-to-day living, whether it is in healthcare, consumer technology, or energy.

    The Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) lists 20 things we wouldn’t have without space travel — it includes such everyday things as camera phones, CAT scans, athletic shoes, wireless headsets, and artificial limbs. Even with these examples, we’d only be skimming the surface.

    Space travel is already experiencing a shift from being an exclusively government affair to one involving private players, either independently (for the most part) or as an integral part of big government projects.

    As an example, Musk’s space venture SpaceX became the first private company to send astronauts to the International Space Station last year. It enabled the launch of American astronauts from American soil for the first time since the start of the last decade. Going forward, it is expected to play a major role in NASA’s audacious Artemis lunar missions.

    This is all besides other independent SpaceX plans, such as providing access to broadband internet across the globe with the help of a constellation of satellites. As of May, over 1,730 satellites have already been deployed as part of the Starlink programme.

    Making space more accessible and affordable, as the work of Branson, Bezos, and Musk is expected to do over time, also allows the smaller players with less resources to make a mark and produce public goods. From young researchers at educational institutions to private enterprises, people will be able to send out small satellites to collect space-based data to inform sectors like agriculture, infrastructure, and banking, or instead send payloads that further research in science and technology.

    “Satellite information can be used to improve agricultural yields to tackle world hunger, or to facilitate fast and efficient disaster relief and emergency services, or to allow us to monitor the health of the planet and inform climate solutions. Indeed, these benefits are intimately tied to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. All 17 goals rely directly or indirectly on space and satellite technology,” astronomer Professor Alan Duffy writes with hope for The Age.

    Even just with space tourism, there is economic benefit to be gained — along with, perhaps more importantly, a perspective on Earth’s unique place and why we as a society need to prevent harm to it. There is even a name for this gain in perspective, called “the overview effect”, which describes the change in attitude one reports after viewing the Earth from space. Astronauts in mission after mission have testified to this shift in awareness.

    This attitudinal shift was witnessed early through the public reaction to the famous image taken on the Apollo 8 mission in 1968, one year before the landmark lunar landing.

    The “Earthrise” photograph, which shows the Earth peeking out from beyond the lunar surface, is said to have sparked and influenced environmental consciousness at that time. American nature photographer Galen Rowell famously declared Earthrise "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken".

    In any case, with Branson and Bezos, there already appears to be more than just space tourism in mind.

    One of the mission specialists on the Virgin Galactic spaceflight, astronaut Sirisha Bandla, actually travelled with the goal of scientific research. She conducted the NASA-supported plant experiment on the Unity 22 flight.

    Although the Blue Origin vehicle launching today will be dedicated to astronaut flights to space, the company has another vehicle that it is dedicating to payload missions.

    Blue Origin has already accomplished nine payload missions so far and is keen to provide access to space for science and technology purposes. It even has plans to work with NASA on their suborbital crew programme.

    Taking these things into consideration, viewing these spaceflights merely as billionaire joy rides may be too narrow and cynical a view to take.

    Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are marking a new phase of commercial spaceflight with their July launches. It will be exciting, and important, to see how they evolve.

    Karan Kamble writes on science and technology. He occasionally wears the hat of a video anchor for Swarajya's online video programmes.

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