He’s been pipped in the space race by Richard Branson and there was a signature campaign likening him to a comic book villain and urging that his reentry into Earth’s atmosphere be prevented. But Jeff Bezos should be gearing up to laugh these issues off in his trademark style as he readies to fly off to the edge of space on a rocket made by his Blue Origin company. The goal is to bring spaceflight closer to humans and the founder of e-tail giant Amazon and the world’s richest man stands as one of the pioneers of the new space age that has dawned with the emergence of wealthy space entrepreneurs who have set out to give everybody a chance to go where few have travelled before.
Why Is Bezos Going To Space?
Mostly, for sightseeing. But the trip is also significant because it will be the first mission featuring a human crew on the New Shepard rocket and capsule manufactured by Blue Origin, the space exploration company owned by Bezos.
The spacecraft has seen 15 test flights, but none with any humans on board. On his space ride slated for July 20, Bezos will be accompanied by his brother Mark and the youngest and the oldest travellers to space. After the mystery winner who reportedly paid $28 million to book a seat on the spacecraft passed on the trip due to scheduling issues, his place passed to 18-year-old Oliver Daemen.
The fourth traveller is 82-year-old American aviation icon Wally Funk, who had trained for space travel but did not actually make a trip into the great unknown. The duo “represent the youngest and oldest astronauts to travel to space”, Bezos’s company has said.
What Is The Rocket Taking Bezos To Space?
The New Shepard craft that Bezos and company will take to space is a rocket-and-capsule combo that is designed to fly six passengers more than 62 miles (100 km) vertically up in the air into the suborbital space above Earth. The company says that the “the vehicle is fully autonomous”, which means that every person onboard is a passenger and there are no pilots.
The Blue Origin website describes it as a “reusable suborbital rocket system designed to take astronauts and research payloads past the Kármán line – the internationally recognized boundary of space”. The rocket measures 60-ft from tip to base and is named after Alan Shepard, the first American to go to space.
Blue Origin also has another rocket in its fleet, the New Glenn, named after US astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. The New Glenn is a 270-ft tall giant that is expected to carry large payloads into orbit.
With cheap space travel a watchword for a new generation of billionaire entrepreneurs, both New Shepard and New Glenn are vertical take off and vertical landing craft that can be reused multiple times.
How Safe Is It?
According to Blue Origin, the New Shepard rocket and its redundant safety systems have been in testing since 2012 and conducted 15 successful consecutive missions. But what Bezos and his felloe travellers are doing essentially amounts to a first for the space flight system because it has never had human passengers before.
But for Blue Origin staff, it’s their boss travelling and so it can can be expected that all attention is being given to every last detail. Spelling out some of the safety systems, the company says that New Shepard comes equipped with a crew escape system that pushes the capsule away from the booster, that is, the rocket, “in the unlikely event an issue is detected”.
The escape system has “been tested three times successfully from the launch pad, mid-flight, and in the vacuum of space, demonstrating the system can activate safely in any phase of flight”. Then, there is the landing system, which has been designed keeping in mind several redundancies. The bottom of the capsule has a retro-thrust system that ensures that it lands at just 1.6 kmph at the company’s launchpad in the West Texas desert. Also, the capsule can land with two of its three parachutes out.
The height Bezos is travelling to is, of course, not hospitable for humans, but the capsule is a pressurised one and the company may not even need to wear masks and spacesuits. However, there will be no pilot on board in case the travellers want to check something because the capsule is fully automated.
How Does It Compare With Branson’s Flight?
On July 12, Virgin Galactic boss Richard Branson and five other crew members soared up into space from their base in the US, becoming the “first person to ride into space aboard a rocket he helped fund”. But the system devised by Branson’s company is much different from the one used by Blue Origin. To begin with, what Virgin Galactic uses is not a rocket but a set of two planes. Branson and company completed their space ride on a supersonic plane which was hitched to a mothership, another plane that carries the smaller aircraft to a height of 50,000ft before the latter detaches itself and continues on to touch a height of about 90km above Earth.
The Blue Origin website now provides a detailed comparison of its own suborbital system vis-a-vis the Virgin Galactic craft and claims that while its rocket crosses the 100-km- above-Earth mark, that is not the case with the Virgin Galactic craft. It further makes the boast that its craft features the “largest windows in space” as compared with the “airplane-sized windows” of Branson’s vessel.
Blue Origin also cites a study to claim that the “liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen rocket engine” that it uses “has 100x less Ozone loss and 750x less climate forcing magnitude than an air-launched hybrid engine (which Virgin Galactic uses)”.
When Is Liftoff? Where Can I See It?
Weather permitting, the New Shepard rocket with the capsule carrying Bezos and company is set to blast off from the launch site at 6.30 pm IST. You will be able to watch the event on Blue Origin website (blueorigin.com) with the live stream slated to begin at 5 pm IST.