For Jeff Bezos, Space Tourism Is “Practice” For Loftier Space Goals

For Jeff Bezos, Space Tourism Is “Practice” For Loftier Space GoalsAmazon founder Jeff Bezos had shared his vision to go to space for the benefit of Earth in May 2019. (Photo: Blue Origin/Twitter)
  • Jeff Bezos has a grand space vision. The suborbital space tourism flights by his company make for a good start and will serve as springboards for more advanced space missions in the years ahead.

“Big things start small” has been a mantra for the Amazon founder and latest space returnee Jeff Bezos. He said it once again recently at the conference following his space company Blue Origin’s first human flight on 20 July. In saying this, among other things, he has pointed to bigger and higher space ambitions and how space tourism will be the vehicle to drive it forward.

On Tuesday — a historic day because 20 July 1969 was when humans first landed on the Moon — Jeff Bezos, along with his crew mates brother Mark Bezos, aviator Wally Funk, and student and first paying customer of Blue Origin Oliver Daemen, hopped on board the New Shepard rocket and took a round-trip to space and back that lasted a little over 10 minutes.

The four-member crew, which after a successful flight included the oldest and youngest persons ever to fly to space, shot up on a fully automated and reusable New Shepard rocket to go over the “Kármán line” — at 100 km above mean sea level, an internationally recognised Earth-space boundary — and descended safely in what was, for Bezos, the “best day ever”.

Only days ago, on 11 July, Richard Branson had successfully completed a suborbital flight for his spaceflight company Virgin Galactic. It was the first flight of the suborbital rocket-powered spaceplane VSS Unity with a full crew, which included Branson. They went up to about 86 km — which is space or near-space, depending on how one defines the imaginary boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and space — before coming down for a runway landing at Spaceport America.

Though these two flights ushered a new phase of commercial spaceflight, the idea of “billionaires” putting money in space travel drew criticism from those who believe that the money is better spent on the ground for problems like poverty, hunger, and climate change.

But for Bezos, as appears to be the case for Branson, space tourism is significant but not the end goal.

“The architecture and the technology we have chosen is complete overkill for a suborbital tourism mission,” Bezos said at the post-flight conference.

“We have chosen the vertical landing architecture. Why do we do that? Because it scales. It’s an architecture that can grow to a very large size,” he added, explaining that he will extend it for use in New Glenn and, in the future, to New Armstrong.

Named after John Glenn, a pioneering astronaut with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the first American to orbit the Earth, New Glenn is Blue Origin’s reusable launch vehicle that is designed to ferry people and payload to Earth orbit and back routinely. Powered by the relatively inexpensive liquified natural gas, it is big enough that New Shepard would fit into its payload bay.

Little is known about the eldest brother of the fleet, New Armstrong. However, one can infer that it’s the next stage in Blue Origin’s space development activities and will probably represent a giant leap for Bezos’ company since it carries the name of the astronaut who was the first to walk the surface of the Moon.

But to reach these more advanced stages, early wins are necessary — and for that, the New Shepard flights will make for significant springboards for future Blue Origin missions.

“The whole point of doing this is to get practice,” Bezos said at the conference, bringing up the point a few times.

It explains why Blue Origin went in for the high-performing liquid hydrogen fuel to simply go to the edge of space and return. “You would never choose liquid hydrogen for a suborbital tourism mission. It’s completely unnecessary,” he said.

But it works because, as Bezos explained, New Shepard will make the second stage of the New Glenn rocket. Therefore, every New Shepard flight will stand to strengthen the more advanced launch vehicle, which will be used for orbital missions.

Blue Origin New Shepard rocket
Blue Origin New Shepard rocket

Going far beyond touring the edge of space, Bezos' space vision entails people "living and working in space".

"In order to preserve Earth, Blue Origin believes that humanity will need to expand, explore, find new energy and material resources, and move industries that stress Earth into space," his company mission states.

In May 2019, talking about the ballooning energy demand globally and how the Earth alone would not be able to keep up, Bezos explained his vision to go to space "for the benefit of Earth".

"If we move out into the solar system, for all practical purposes, we have unlimited resources," he said during his presentation.

The Amazon founder envisions trillions of humans living in the solar system. But this "civilisation" wouldn't necessarily be living on planetary surfaces. Referencing the work of the late Princeton University physicist Gerard K O'Neill, he backed the idea of "manufactured worlds rotated to create artificial gravity with centrifugal force".

These O'Neill colonies will be "very large structures, miles on end, and they hold a million people or more each".

The presence of these space colonies would mean that planet Earth would simply be reserved for residential and light industrial purposes. The heavy, polluting industry would get shipped to space. This is Bezos' idea of saving the planet, riding on the ideas of thinkers like O'Neill.

Bezos believes that his generation's job will be to build the infrastructure necessary for future generations to create these spectacular-sounding, Earth-saving "O'Neill colonies". That is why he often speaks of "building a road to space".

But rolling this colossal vision back to where we are now, the requirement in the present would be to build launch vehicles that drastically reduce the cost of launching to space, and in the process, make space travel a more routine affair than it is now. This would also mean developing human-rated vehicles from the beginning.

And that's how we arrive at the kind of vehicles that Blue Origin is building — the New Shepards and New Glenns, and, later, possibly New Armstrongs — and the space missions it is planning.

Part of the basic building blocks beyond the rockets is also vehicles that would allow people to carry out scientific research in space while simultaneously tapping into resources available in the solar system.

The Moon is the closest target, and so, naturally, Blue Origin has been developing a Moon lander for years. Called Blue Moon, it is set to enable the transport of cargo or crew to the lunar surface but with the goal of sustained presence over time.

The lander, along with the various launch vehicles, essentially make up the nuts and bolts of Bezos' grand space vision.

In the large scheme of things, the successful completion of the first crewed flight on the New Shepard platform is a start and a good one, by the looks of it. Two more Blue Origin human flights are planned for this year, inevitably providing more opportunities for "practice".

Big things do start small. After that, it's over to practice and execution. The next couple of years may, therefore, be a particularly important time in Blue Origin's spaceflight journey.

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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