(Bloomberg) — Jeff Bezos’s trip past the edge of space will look very different than that of his putative rival, Richard Branson.
Earlier this month, Branson journeyed in the belly of a space plane, which was carried to high altitude by another aircraft and dropped into the air. Then it rocketed to 53.5 miles (86 km) above the Earth and afterwards glided down and landed conventionally, on a runway.
On Tuesday morning, Bezos will go to space the old-fashioned way: on the tip of a rocket.
Propelled by a mixture of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, the New Shepard spacecraft will lift vertically off the desert floor at Bezos’s ranch in West Texas, travel 62 miles overhead and then detach a crew capsule in which Bezos, his brother Mark, and two passengers will enjoy about three minutes of weightlessness.
The booster will return to earth first, accompanied by a sonic boom and at such speed that at first it will seem destined to crash—until the engine relights and, if all goes according to plan, it descends into a cloud of desert dust and lands upright. A few minutes later—again, if all goes well—the crew capsule will float down nearby underneath three parachutes. Then Bezos, the wealthiest person in the world, will no doubt emerge jubilantly from the capsule door.
A successful New Shepard launch will represent a delayed triumph, of sorts, for Bezos and his private space company, Blue Origin. Bezos founded it in 2000 with his early winnings from Amazon and a vague notion of creating “an enduring human presence in space,” as early mission statements put it. Since its start in a nondescript warehouse south of downtown Seattle, Blue has expanded its mandate, developing orbital and moon programs but often losing out on lucrative government contracts to Space Exploration Technologies Corp., founded by Bezos’s other rival for space glory, Elon Musk. Blue Origin now employs about 3,500 people at its headquarters in Kent, Washington, and manufacturing hubs in Huntsville, Alabama, and Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Through it all, Bezos has continued to cultivate Blue Origin’s more modest original program, New Shepard, with the goal of building a sub-orbital tourism business and restoring a sense of swashbuckling adventure to space faring. Over the years, the program has suffered technical setbacks, been delayed several times and required such significant capital—all of it from Bezos—that insiders doubt it will ever be profitable. But for Amazon’s founder and executive chairman, who has harbored a lifelong dream of opening the space frontier, that may no longer be the goal. “New Shepard is more about selling inspiration and selling people on the journey that Blue Origin wants to take, than it is on selling tickets,” says Dylan Taylor, CEO of Voyager Space Holdings, an investment firm.
Bezos developed much of the original inspiration for Blue Origin as a child, watching the Apollo moon landings and spending summers with his grandfather, who worked for the Atomic Energy Commission and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the R&D wing of the Pentagon. He delivered his high-school valedictorian speech on building space habitats on orbiting space stations (“Space, the final frontier. Meet me there,” was his last line) and developed a fascination with Gerard K. O’Neill, a physicist who wrote about developing human colonies in orbit that harnessed the power of the sun.
New Shepard was supposed to be the first step in getting people comfortable with that radical future. But there were unanticipated obstacles along the way. Bezos originally selected a fuel mix of kerosene and hydrogen peroxide, an expensive, volatile substance. In 2011, Blue Origin lost a prototype spacecraft in a fiery high-altitude explosion over the nearby town of Van Horn, Texas, and Bezos authorized a switch to a hydrogen-oxygen fuel mixture. In 2015, Blue Origin lost another booster during a capsule-release test when an electrohydraulic drive unit malfunctioned as the booster descended for its upright landing.
Unlike Branson and similar to Musk, Bezos has been a major contributor to New Shepard’s technical architecture, making decisions about details like the diameters of the fuel tanks and the layers of redundancy in safety systems, Blue engineers say. Over the years he’s spent considerable personal time outside Amazon at Blue, reviewing plans and participating in major technical meetings. But in 2017, impatient with slow progress at the company, he hired Bob Smith, an executive at Honeywell Aerospace, to be Blue’s first CEO.
Ever the reverential student of space history, Bezos hoped to stage the first crewed mission of New Shepard in July of 2019—the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, the first human landing on the moon. But Blue engineers say problems with the spacecraft’s subsystems and avionics and the perception of increased risk for the passengers led to more delays. Smith also swapped out much of Blue Origin’s senior and technical leadership, bringing in veterans from established aerospace companies such as Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp.
Blue employs two ex-astronauts: Jeff Ashby, who piloted the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Columbia, Atlantis and Endeavour space shuttles, and Nicholas Patrick, who flew on Endeavour and Discovery. The company’s original plans called for them to travel on New Shepard first, to assess the experience for paying passengers. “I don’t think we ever thought Jeff would fly first,” says one former Blue Origin engineer. But Bezos, like Branson, clearly believes it’s safe and that putting himself (and his younger brother) on the first mission sends a loud message. “To the company, it means, the owner may not be happy with the schedule, but this guy trusts us,” says the former employee.
Still, a successful New Shepard flight with humans won’t dramatically improve Blue Origin’s prospects. The company hasn’t yet announced ticket prices for regular passengers, and it’s unclear how fast or even whether Bezos will follow through on original plans to establish an affordable space tourism business. (Virgin Galactic plans to begin ferrying customers to suborbital space next year, for more than $250,000 per seat.)
Some analysts wonder if Bezos has actually moved on, to focus on his larger ambitions deeper in space, such as serving exploration missions to the moon. “I don’t believe Blue Origin’s intent is to fly the masses to suborbital space,” says Laura Seward Forczyk, a space industry consultant and analyst at Astralytical, who thinks the more important goal is to demonstrate the technology and integrate it into Blue’s orbital and deep-space vehicles.
One of those vehicles, New Glenn, will compete in the market for orbital launches with SpaceX rockets like the Falcon Heavy and Starship. It’s also several years behind schedule, as is its BE-4 engine, frustrating Blue’s close corporate partner, the United Launch Alliance, which is relying on the engines for its new rocket, the Vulcan Centaur. And Blue Origin’s prospects for winning government contracts haven’t improved. In April, NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to build a spacecraft that would return astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972. Blue Origin protested that decision and has lobbied Congress to increase NASA’s funding and hand out a second contract.
But if anyone has the resources and the commitment to stick it out, it’s Bezos. His fortune is currently valued at about $211 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, which gives him more than enough cushion to pursue even the most outlandish long-term visions. Colleagues say one aspect of that dream is to turn Blue Origin into a “self-sustaining, multi-generational company.” If and when he emerges smiling from the New Shepard capsule on Tuesday, it will be at least one small step toward that goal.