The Hindu Profiles | On NSO group, Blue Origin and Pedro Castillo

Blue Origin | The race to space

In 2005, six years after he was named the Time magazine’s Person of the Year for helping “build the foundation of our future” and already a multi-billionaire by this time, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos walked into the nondescript office of Van Horn Advocate, a local weekly newspaper in Van Horn town in west Texas, to talk about a project that he had shielded from media for many years till then.

Over the next half-an-hour, Mr. Bezos spoke to the newspaper’s Larry Simpson, a meeting described by Brad Stone, author of The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, as an “impromptu interview” with “its bewildered editor”. It was an interview where Mr. Bezos opened up on his space venture, Blue Origin. By then, he had purchased vast amounts of land — by Mr. Stone’s account, “an area about a third of the size of Rhode Island” — around here. Mr. Simpson was later quoted by NBC News as saying, “He told me their first spacecraft is going to carry three people up to the edge of space and back.” Just a few days ago, 16 years after the interview, Mr. Bezos, now the richest person on the planet, made it to space and back safely from this very town with three others in a space vehicle developed by Blue Origin.

He was accompanied by his brother Mark Bezos, 82-year-old Wally Funk, who trained to be an astronaut in the 1960s but never got a chance to fly to space until now, and Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old student. Mr. Daemen is the first paying customer for Mr. Bezos’ space venture. He only got a chance in the inaugural flight because the person who bid $28 million for a seat had to reschedule. Ms. Funk and Mr. Daemen are now the oldest and the youngest, respectively, to travel to space.

Van Horn, media reports say, has changed over these years, with the venture bringing in money to the town. What has also changed over this period is the space industry, which not long ago was the exclusive domain of governmental agencies. Mr. Bezos isn’t alone in trying to figure out a business out of space travel. Fellow businessmen Richard Branson, who successfully completed space travel a week before Mr. Bezos on a spaceship built by his venture Virgin Galactic, and Elon Musk, who runs SpaceX, have made big investments in this area. Mr. Musk’s venture has already been involved in transporting astronauts to the International Space Station.

The Amazon founder’s idea, expressed in a speech at Carnegie Mellon University in 2011, was to help “build a future where we humans can explore the solar system first hand and in person”. What Blue Origin needed to do, therefore, he said, was to drive down cost and make the technology safe. In fact, all the space entrepreneurs seem to have realised the importance of building and perfecting a reusable space vehicle.

Reusable rocket

Blue Origin made its breakthrough with a reusable vehicle in 2015. It was then that its New Shepard space vehicle, named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space, successfully made it to space and back. “Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts — a used rocket,” Mr. Bezos was quoted as saying in the venture’s blog. “Full reuse is a game changer, and we can’t wait to fuel up and fly again.”

Just a few months later, in a blog headlined ‘Launch. Land. Repeat’, Mr. Bezos wrote how the New Shepard flew and then landed vertically from where it launched. Reuse demonstrated. And then in elaborating on why he is a “huge fan” of rocket-powered vertical landing, he said this is the technology which scales well to achieve his “vision of millions of people living and working in space”. New Shepard has since made many test trips, carrying with it the dummy Mannequin Skywalker as well as research payloads for NASA and the German Aerospace Centre, among others.

Blue Origin has planned two more crewed flights this year and “many more” in 2022. But “the billionaire space race,” as it is often called, sometimes derisively, has only just begun. Mr. Bezos’ friend Danny Hillis has been quoted by Mr. Stone in his book about Amazon as saying, “Space for Jeff is not a year 2000 or a year 2010 opportunity.” Rather, “It’s been a dream of humanity’s for centuries and it will continue to be one for centuries. Jeff sees himself and Blue Origin as part of that bigger story.”

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Printable version | Sep 29, 2021 5:03:48 AM |

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