Another week, another billionaire with a rocket company goes into space.
Last week, Richard Branson earned his astronaut wings flying a spaceplane from Virgin Galactic, a company he founded 14 years ago, to over 80 miles above the New Mexico skies.
On Tuesday it will be Jeff Bezos, the richest person in the universe, who buckles himself into a capsule built by his rocket company Blue Origin and takes off even higher than 100 kilometers above West Texas.
When is the launch and how can I watch it?
Blue Origin is aiming for the missile to take off at 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, July 20. The company will begin reporting on the launch at 7:30 a.m. on its YouTube channel. The date coincides with the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
What is the New Shepard missile and what will it do?
New Shepard, the Blue Origin spacecraft, is named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space. It consists of a booster and a capsule on top that holds the passengers.
Unlike Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane, New Shepard is more of a traditional rocket that takes off vertically. As soon as the booster has used up its propellant – liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen – the capsule detaches from the booster.
Both parts continue to roll up, above the 62 mile limit that is often viewed as the beginning of space. During this part of the flight path, passengers will unbuckle their seat belts and hover around the capsule, experience about four minutes of free fall, and see a view of the earth and the darkness of space from the capsule’s large windows.
The booster lands first and vertically, similar to the landings of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets. The capsule lands minutes after the booster, sinks under a parachute and is cushioned at the last second by firing a jet of air. The entire flight should take about 10 minutes.
Is New Shepard Safe?
Blue Origin launched New Shepard 15 times – all without anyone on board – and the capsule landed safely each time. (The booster crashed the first time it started; the next 14 starts the booster landed unharmed.)
During a flight in 2016, Blue Origin conducted a flight test of the missile’s escape system, in which engines removed the capsule from a non-functioning booster.
A solid rocket rocket at the bottom of the crew capsule fired 1.8 seconds and exerted 70,000 pounds of force to quickly disconnect the capsule and steer it out of the way of the booster. Its parachutes unfolded and the capsule landed gently.
Not only did the capsule survive, the booster was able to straighten itself, fly further into space, and then re-ignite its engine and land a few miles north of the launch pad in West Texas, a little charred but intact.
Still, the federal government does not enact regulations for the safety of passengers on a spaceship like New Shepard. Unlike commercial passenger aircraft, the missile has not been certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. In fact, the FAA is legally prohibited from making such requirements until 2023.
The rationale is that emerging space companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic need a “learning curve” to try out designs and processes, and that too much regulation too soon would stifle innovations that would lead to better, more efficient designs.
Passengers must sign forms confirming “informed consent” to the risks, similar to parachuting or bungee jumping.
What the FAA regulates is ensuring the safety of people who are not on the plane – that is, if something goes wrong, the risk to the “innocent public” on the ground is tiny.
Who else is on board the flight?
Mr Bezos is bringing his younger brother with him. Mark Bezos, 50, led a more private life. He is co-founder and general partner at HighPost Capital, a private equity firm. Mark Bezos previously worked as a communications director at the Robin Hood Foundation, a charity that works to fight poverty in New York City.
Blue Origin auctioned one of the seats, with proceeds going to Club for the Future, a space-focused charity founded by Mr Bezos. The winner paid $ 28 million – and we still don’t know who it was.
Last week the company announced that the auction winner had decided to wait for a follow-up flight “due to scheduling conflicts”.
Instead, Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old student from the Netherlands who was runner-up in the auction and who had bought a ticket for the second New Shepard flight, was bumped into.
The fourth passenger is Mary Wallace Funk – her name is Wally – a pilot who, in the 1960s, was part of a group of women who met the same stringent criteria NASA used when selecting astronauts.