CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Nearly a decade ago, Jeff Bezos’ spaceflight company Blue Origin was locked in a battle for use of a historic NASA launch pad at Kennedy Space Center.
Bezos wanted pad 39A – the host of Apollo 11 and dozens of space shuttle missions –open to multiple companies and their rockets since NASA retired the shuttle program. After bids and protests, the agency ultimately selected Elon Musk’s SpaceX to lease Florida’s most high-profile pad.
During the fight over 39A, Musk in a 2013 interview said SpaceX would consider sharing the pad if Blue Origin could produce a human-rated vehicle within five years. He famously told SpaceNews: “Frankly, I think we are more likely to discover unicorns dancing in the flame duct.”
Bezos didn’t get the pad. But since then, his company shifted its gaze south a few miles and secured a different facility, spending more than $1 billion to convert Launch Complex 36 to its exact specifications for the upcoming New Glenn rocket. Blue Origin’s private facility in Texas, meanwhile, has launched the New Shepard rocket more than a dozen times since 2015 without major issues.
And now, Bezos himself is set to touch space and give his company’s tourism-focused New Shepard vehicle the ultimate endorsement by becoming the first to fly it. The 8 a.m. Central time launch dubbed NS-16 will include his brother Mark, longtime women-in-space advocate Wally Funk, and Oliver Daemen, the winner of an auction for the capsule’s fourth seat. The crew covers two age-related records: both the oldest (Funk, 82) and youngest (Daemen, 18) to fly to space.
Ultimately, the contest over pad 39A was one of several pivotal moments that paved the way for Bezos, 57, to steadily increase investments of time and money, the latter of which continues to come from Amazon earnings. From engine tests to contracts to hiring sprees, a more than 20-year journey bought the company to this point – and Tuesday’s launch will be its most high-profile, defining moment to date.
Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin’s journey
Bezos’ interest in space, at least as documented officially by the Miami Herald, dates back to his teenage years as a student at Miami Palmetto Senior High School.
In his 1982 graduation speech, the valedictorian said he envisioned a future in which Earth-harming activities like heavy industry are moved off-planet, leaving behind a national park-like home for humanity. It may have seemed far-fetched at the time, but perhaps not so much – after all, Bezos was a child during the Apollo missions to the moon and his speech came less than a year after the first space shuttle launch.
Six years after founding Amazon, in 2000, Bezos put his passion for spaceflight to action with the founding of Blue Origin near Seattle, Washington. The company’s first coat of arms showed two turtles reaching for the stars and text that read “Gradatim Ferociter,” a Latin homage to “The Tortoise and the Hare” that translates to “step-by-step, ferociously.”
“You will travel in a land of marvels,” Bezos said during a speech to Princeton University’s graduating class of 2010, during which he discussed advances in technologies ranging from spaceflight to healthcare. “Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Galileo, Newton – all the curious from the ages would have wanted to be alive right now.”
One of his earliest public milestones involving space came in 2013 when he personally helped recover two Apollo-era Rocketdyne F-1 engines from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. They were later confirmed to have flown the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 and are currently on display at the Seattle Museum of Flight in Washington.
Blue did have early test vehicles, but New Shepard has been under development the longest. The 60-foot rocket and capsule that launches from West Texas is designed primarily for space tourism thanks to automated flight systems, large windows, and a modern interior. After liftoff, the booster returns to the facility for a vertical landing while the capsule briefly floats in space, then touches down near the launch site with the help of parachutes.
Today, Blue has four focus points: New Shepard for space tourism; the heavy-lift New Glenn rocket for large payloads and long-term goals; producing its BE-4 rocket engine, which will power New Glenn and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur; and advanced efforts such as its recent submission of a human lander concept for NASA’s Artemis moon program. The multibillion-dollar lander proposal, like the pad 39A tussle of 2013, is currently being reviewed by the Government Accountability Office after Blue Origin protested the sole selection of SpaceX’s bid.
But the Blue Origin of 2013 and Blue Origin of today aren’t entirely comparable. Over that timeframe, the company has grown from about 300 employees to thousands across several states and campuses. A massive factory-campus near Kennedy Space Center is still being expanded upon for building the New Glenn rocket, now launching from Cape Canaveral no earlier than late 2022.
Despite being the wealthiest person in the world, Bezos typically has a low-key public image. His stepping out not only to fly his company’s first crewed mission but bring his brother and two others along – all while the world watches – is a confirmation of his passion for spaceflight.
“Most of the attention that comes to Jeff Bezos is because of what he’s achieved and what he’s accomplished, not him actively going out and seeking it,” said Dale Ketcham, Space Florida’s vice president of government and external relations. “He wants to go to space. He’s built a rocket, so why not?”
Bezos has typically been open about his support of spaceflight and Blue through the sale of billions of dollars in Amazon stock, a practice he has confirmed several times. That it comes during a peak in his wealth – now hovering around $177 billion, according to Forbes – is a boon to his dream.
“He is at a point where his very first human-rated flight system is emerging into flying humans,” said Alan Stern, a scientist, pilot, and author who was selected to conduct research on an upcoming Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo flight. “I think this is an amazing high point for him.”
“And I expect you’ll see a lot more on space from Jeff Bezos now that he’s free of very heavy responsibilities at Amazon,” Stern said, referencing Bezos’ recent transition out of the role of Amazon CEO and into an executive chair.
With the recent flight of entrepreneur Richard Branson on Virgin Galactic’s vehicle, the billionaire space race is heating up as Bezos prepares for his turn on Tuesday. To date, Musk has not said when he will fly on one of his vehicles.
“This is very reminiscent of the era 90 to 100 years ago with the early barons of the airline industry,” Stern said. “It’s very interesting that spaceflight is breaking out into something that looks like early air travel.”
The three space billionaires must be on to something: a report released last week by the Space Foundation, a nonprofit space advocate, said the global space economy rose to $447 billion in 2020, marking the fifth straight year of growth. That’s a 50% jump from a decade ago.
The foundation said commercial space grew 6.6% and represents some 80% of the entire space economy. Top contributors are the U.S., China, and Europe.
The Blue Origin crew
Of the four seats available for Tuesday’s flight, Bezos and his younger brother will take two. That leaves two more for Wally Funk and Oliver Daemen.
Mark Bezos, 53, is also a longtime fan of spaceflight like his older brother. He’s an entrepreneur and volunteer firefighter at the Scarsdale Fire Department in Scarsdale, New York. Jeff Bezos said he considers his brother his oldest, closest friend.
At 82 years old, Funk will become the oldest person to reach space during the 11-minute flight. The aviator is famous for her part in the “Mercury 13,” a group of women who went through privately funded, unofficial astronaut training in the 1960s but were not selected to fly NASA missions.
“They told me that I had done better and completed the work faster than any of the guys,” Funk said after Bezos offered her the seat. “So I got a hold of NASA four times and told them I wanted to become an astronaut, but no one would take me. I never thought that I would get to go up.”
Rich Cooper, the Space Foundation’s vice president of strategic communications, said “you can’t find a better Hollywood story ending than someone who could have and should have flown in the Mercury era.”
“She’s finally getting her chance to get her view of the Earth and get the liftoff she has earned,” he said.
In the fourth seat will be Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old student from the Netherlands who placed second place in an auction for the seat. The first-place winner, who bid a whopping $28 million, opted to remain anonymous and fly a future New Shepard mission instead.
Daemen’s father Joes is the founder of Dutch hedge fund Somerset Capital Partners.
“That kid is a physics major,” Cooper said. “You think he is going to deviate from physics after the flight? Who knows where that young man may be five or 10 years from now, but I can guarantee you he’s going to want to get back to space.”
Funk and Daemen cover a swath of time from the Greatest Generation to Gen Z, Cooper said, and “they’re going to both speak to a lot of different communities that may not have been regularly thought of or engaged in space.”
“Both Bezos and Branson are driving greater conversation among people that ask: ‘Would you go on one of those flights?'”
Follow Emre Kelly on Twitter: @EmreKelly.