Welcome to another installment of The Intelligence Brief… following Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic flight to space last week, now former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has entered the game. We’ll be analyzing 1) the successful Blue Origin launch that carried Bezos to space, 2) Branson’s reaction to Tuesday’s launch, 3) the backlash Bezos wasn’t able to prevent on account of what many see as a vanity pursuit, and 4) another player in the current space race that hardly anyone is talking about… but who could end up being significant in the long run.
With that out of the way, we now turn our attention toward the Lone Star State, and Tuesday’s successful launch by Blue Origin which made history… and stirred controversy.
Bezos Blasts Off
On Tuesday Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man and former Amazon CEO, blasted off into space aboard the New Shepard spacecraft, a prototype built by his Blue Origin company. It was the first manned flight successfully undertaken by the company, which has already seen 15 successful unmanned test flights.
Bezos was accompanied by a crew consisting of his brother Mark, founder and CEO of Somerset Capital Partners Oliver Daemen, and American aviator Wally Funk who is now recognized as the oldest person to go into space. At age 18 is Daemen is, by contrast, now officially the youngest astronaut.
After their harrowing ascent aboard the New Shepard, the group spent just minutes in weightless space at the edge of Earth’s atmosphere before safely returning to Earth via parachute delivery.
The peculiarly shaped spacecraft that carried out Tuesday’s mission is a vertical takeoff and landing suborbital launch vehicle, which in the future will serve as the basis for Blue Origin’s space tourism efforts. It is named after astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American astronaut to have gone to space in 1961.
Branson Weighs In
The successful flight made Bezos second in line to enter space in what has now been dubbed the “Billionaire Space Race,” following Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson’s July 11 flight (as we covered last week).
Following the successful launch and return to Earth by Bezos and his crew, Branson congratulated his rival on social media.
“Well done @blueorigin, @JeffBezos, Mark, Wally and Oliver. Impressive! Very best to all the crew from me and all the team at @virgingalactic,” the Virgin Galactic founder wrote.
While Bezos is technically in second place, he is still leading SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who has reportedly purchased a ticket to fly aboard Richard Branson’s spaceship the Virgin Galactic. The cost of the flight remains unconfirmed, although Musk’s ticket has been estimated to have cost as much as $250,000.
Who’s Picking Up the Tab?
Prior to launch, Bezos made a generous $200 million donation to the Air and Space Museum, the single largest amount ever given to the Smithsonian Institute since its founding. However, if this had been aimed at offsetting potential backlash from those critical of the expense involved with putting the world’s wealthiest men in space, Bezos did himself no favors during the press conference that followed the launch.
“I also want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all of this,” Mr. Bezos said in words that seemed barely coherent on account of his foot also finding its way into his mouth.
The backlash was quick, and sharp.
“Space travel isn’t a tax-free holiday for the wealthy,” Representative Earl Blumenauer (D, Oregon) said. “We pay taxes on plane tickets. Billionaires flying into space — producing no scientific value — should do the same, and then some!”
“Bezos may have headed off some of that ill will later in the news conference when he announced major philanthropy initiatives,” wrote Seattle Times aerospace reporter Dominic Gates. “But the seemingly off-the-cuff Amazon remark drew some of the attention away from what was a technically flawless flight.”
And Now… the Rest of the Story
While much of the focus in the current race to commercialize (or “Democratize” as Virgin Galactic terms it) space travel has laid the focus on Bezos, Branson, and Musk, they are by no means the only contenders in the modern space race.
This September, Shift4 Payments CEO Jared Isaacman will also make the journey to space aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. The Inspiration4 Mission will see Isaacman and his crew spend a full three days in orbital space, ascending to an altitude higher than that of the International Space Station.
“Inspiration4 is the world’s first all-civilian mission to orbit,” the company’s website states. “Named in recognition of the four-person crew that will raise awareness and funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, this milestone represents a new era for human spaceflight and exploration.”
“Isaacman may not have the celebrity sizzle of a Branson or a Bezos,” noted Jeffrey Kluger writing for Time, “but both the ambition of his mission and its philanthropic purpose set it apart from Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin’s space-hops.”
It should also be noted that TIME Studios will be producing a docuseries on the Inspiration4 flight, although the effort’s philanthropically oriented goals remain evident. According to Kluger, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is “aggressively backing their efforts.”
Isaacman says that “a lot of effort has been put into this by SpaceX,” adding that he “knew they were an amazing organization,” and that now “they have become a huge part of what we are doing.”
Is there really any more to all of this than just commercial enterprises that will seek to capitalize on the novelty of ease of access to space for those willing to shell out the dollars? Will such efforts help to enable future scientific efforts, as well as charitable ones like Issacman’s Inspiration4 aspires to do? All that remains to be seen in the years ahead, although as things currently stand, it does appear that tomorrow’s adventures in space will remain an endeavor that only government agencies and the wealthy can afford… for now, at least.