Jeff Bezos, the richest man on the planet, is preparing for a rocket-powered, 11-minute 2,300-mph excursion to the edge of space, capping off a month filled with rocket news and a bit of drama among the world’s richest people who are dedicating large portions of their wealth to rocket development.
Bezos, who founded Blue Origin in 2000 with the goal of using some of his Amazon fortune to develop rocket technology for a variety of business purposes, will take his extraterrestrial journey just nine days after fellow billionaire and rocket company founder Richard Branson took his own trip.
But Bezos’ flight, and the technology his company developed to get him there, is far different than Branson’s. Blue Origin’s New Shepard is a small, suborbital rocket that takes off vertically from a launch pad, giving a shorter yet higher-speed experience than the aerial-launched space plane created by Branson’s Virgin Galactic. But much like Virgin Galactic’s plane, New Shepard is designed to shuttle paying customers more than dozens of miles above the Earth’s surface for a few moments of weightlessness and panoramic views of the Earth.
New Shepard has flown 15 automated test flights with no people on board, and Bezos announced in early June that he intended to be on the first-ever crewed flight, which is slated for July 20.
The public will be able to watch the whole thing go down on Blue Origin’s livestream, where it will show exterior shots of the rocket and capsule shooting up toward the cosmos. (Shots of the interior — and Bezos’ facial expressions — won’t be released until after the flight.) The missions is expected to kick off Tuesday after 8 am ET, weather permitting.
Here’s everything you need to know before the big event.
Though the New Shepard capsule can carry up to six people, Bezos is bringing just three others along on this inaugural journey. They include his brother, Mark Bezos; Wally Funk, an 82-year-old pilot and one of the “Mercury 13” women; and an 18-year old recent high school graduate named Oliver Daemen.
Bezos was supposed to fly alongside a mystery bidder who won a recent Blue Origin auction by agreeing to pay $28 million for a seat on the flight, but the company announced Thursday that the person, who asked to remain anonymous for the time being, had to bow out because of “scheduling conflicts.” Daemen — whose father, Dutch investment firm founder Joes Daemen, paid for his ticket — will fly in the auction winner’s place.
What will happen?
When most people think about spaceflight, they think about an astronaut circling the Earth, floating in space, for at least a few days.
That is not what the Bezos brothers and their fellow passengers will be doing.
They’ll be going up and coming right back down, and they’ll be doing it in less time, about 11 minutes, than it takes most people to get to work.
Visually, Blue Origin’s livestream will look much the same as most of the New Shepard test launches of years past have looked: The rocket and capsule will be sitting on a launch pad at Blue Origin’s private facilities in rural Texas — near Van Horn, which is about 120 miles east of El Paso.
New Shepard’s suborbital fights hit about three times the speed of sound — roughly 2,300 miles per hour — and fly directly upward until the rocket expends most of its fuel. The crew capsule will then separate from the rocket at the top of the trajectory and briefly continue upward before the capsule almost hovers at the top of its flight path, giving the passengers a few minutes of weightlessness. It works sort of like an extended version of the weightlessness you experience when you reach the peak of a roller coaster hill, just before gravity brings your cart — or, in Bezos’ case, your space capsule — screaming back down toward the ground.
The New Shepard capsule then deploys a large plume of parachutes to slow its descent to less than 20 miles per hour before it hits the ground, and Bezos and his fellow passengers will be further cushioned by shock-absorbent seats.
The rocket, flying separately after having detached from the human-carrying capsule, will then re-ignite its engines and use its on-board computers to execute a pinpoint, upright landing. The booster landing looks similar to what SpaceX does with its Falcon 9 rockets, though those rockets are far more powerful than New Shepard and — yes — more prone to exploding on impact.
A smattering of media will also be allowed in to watch the launch and interview Bezos and the other passengers after landing. CNN Business reporters will be on the ground during the flight and will post live updates on our site.
How is this different from what SpaceX and Virgin Galactic do?
Bezos’ flight will come just nine days after British billionaire Richard Branson took his own supersonic joy ride to the edge of space, the result of a surprise announcement that came from his space company, Virgin Galactic, days after Bezos announced his intention to go to space.
The two men’s companies — and their PR machines — have since entered into a public back-and-forth, though the billionaires themselves have said they’re not interested in racing to become the first to actually rocket into space aboard a craft they helped fund.
But suborbital space tourism isn’t all that Branson and Bezos are pursuing with their space ventures. Nor is it the largest or most important sector in the burgeoning commercial space industry.
Branson, Musk and Bezos, however, have all been compared for years because of their similarities — all three men used fortune they accrued through other lines of business to pursue space-focused ventures. Here’s how they break down:
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has for years been making headlines and breaking records with its rocket technology — and it is far different than what Blue Origin will debut on Tuesday.
First off, SpaceX builds orbital rockets. Orbital rockets need to drum up enough power to hit at least 17,000 miles per hour, or what’s known as orbital velocity, essentially giving a spacecraft enough energy to continue whipping around the Earth rather than being dragged immediately back down by gravity. That’s how SpaceX is able to put satellites into orbit or carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
Suborbital flights, however, don’t need to travel nearly as fast. They need only reach an altitude above the 50 miles mark — which the US government considers to mark the edge of outer space — or the 62-mile mark, which is internationally considered the demarcating line. (New Shepard is expected to reach over 62 miles.)
What New Shepard will do on Tuesday will more closely resemble what Richard Branson — the other, other space billionaire — is planning to do with his company, Virgin Galactic.
Virgin Galactic is also planning to launch wealthy tourists to suborbital space, though it developed a much different vehicle to get there. Rather than an autonomous rocket that takes off vertically, Virgin Galactic has built a piloted space plane that takes off from a runway (much like an airplane) attached to a massive winged mothership.
Virgin Galactic has completed test flights of its own, and Branson became the first billionaire to fly to space aboard a rocket he helped fund on July 11.
How risky is this?
Space travel is, historically, fraught with danger. Though the risks are not necessarily astronomical for Bezos’ jaunt to suborbital space, as his space company Blue Origin has spent the better part of the last decade running New Shepard through a series of successful test flights.
Suborbital flights also require far less power and speed than orbital rockets. That means less time the rocket is required to burn, lower temperatures scorching the outside of the spacecraft, less force and compression ripping at the spacecraft, and generally fewer opportunities for something to go very wrong.
Still, any time a human straps themselves into a rocket, there are risks involved — and Bezos has apparently calculated that, for him, it’s worth it.
“Ever since I was five years old, I’ve dreamed of traveling to space,” Bezos wrote in his June announcement on Instagram.