Science

Blue Origin: Jeff Bezos, the “Poulidor of space”

You may be the richest man on the planet, you have developed the most attractive means of transport to send tourists towards the heavens as he himself is preparing to do this Tuesday at 3 p.m. Jeff Bezos, will nonetheless remain the “Poulidor of space”. Up there, there is no need to hit the slopes of the Tourmalet, there is also a “eternal second” jersey that he puts on with panache. Because today is his day of glory. Usually rather discreet – a thousand leagues from his rivals Elon Musk or Richard Branson who ignite social networks and rock the stock market with their small semantic projections – has forced his character to make the inaugural flight of his New rocket Shepard a pretty direct, American style with drums and trumpets, which will relay all the news channels on the planet.

A straight-line ascending flight

At 3 pm French time, the elegant silhouette of the “small” New Shepard (18 meters high) will launch from its launch pad, located near Van Horn in West Texas (United States). Unlike Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, Blue Origin’s rocket will perform an upward flight (almost in a straight line) up to a hundred kilometers (90 “only” for Branson last week) in order to officially cross the line. of Karman which defines the terrestrial border of space. Another difference is that this flight will be fully automatic and therefore does not require pilots to board. Once its engine is on, the New Shepard should reach a speed of Mach 3 before separating from the passenger capsule and descending towards Earth to achieve a vertical landing, a technique that only SpaceX also masters. Once at an altitude of 107 kilometers, in their designer capsule, passengers will experience three to four minutes of weightlessness, witnessing what is now commonly called “the magical spectacle of the curvature of the Earth and the sidereal darkness. from space”. Before, they too, to start a free fall in a parachute which should see them land smoothly in the desert a good ten minutes only after takeoff.

A communication battle

Thus, on paper and while awaiting the total success of the operation this afternoon, the system developed by Blue Origin in space tourism – which should rather be described as “suborbital” – appears to be the most effective. solid, not to say the most serious: the New Shepard has already made 15 flights since 2015, almost all of them successful (small failure at the first). On the other hand, it will be for him a first manned flight since he has carried so far only a mannequin (named Skywalker). And on the human side, Bezos was strong: besides him and his brother, he embarked, in fact, the first real “tourist” (Branson last week had taken off with employees of his company) in the person of Olivier Daemen who paid his ticket. In addition, the boy, barely 18, will be the youngest “astronaut” ever qualified. A record that will resonate with the fourth person, Wally Funk, who will become the oldest person in space (82 years old). Finally, the last first and still unlike the Virgin Galactic system, today’s flight will allow Blue Origin to test a real back-up system: if the propulsion stage had a failure, an ejection means was provided to remove the as quickly as possible the passenger capsule of the rocket.

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But behind the records, the various firsts, the communications operations and the smiles that characterize this first manned shooting of the New Shepard, Jeff Bezos will have had his hair cut by Richard Branson in the space tourism race that began there is twenty years. Not enough to change the axis of rotation of the Earth but in this battle of ego, everything counts. Moreover, Elon Musk, the day Branson won his bet, hastened to buy a “Virgin Galactic” ticket, a way of showing his support and his “friendship” towards the British billionaire. As a result, many specialists in the aeronautical world are wondering about the future reaction of the boss of SpaceX at the end of the afternoon and the way in which he will congratulate his favorite rival.

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Bezos definitely left behind?

Moreover, there is a lot of spectacle in this competition between billionaires of New Space. And it’s a bit of a stretch. The fight is not so fierce. Bezos will go down in history as the second on the space tourism podium behind Branson as he developed the safest system. It’s a fact. Bezos is also the second in the field of launchers: this confrontation in which he engages with Elon Musk has, in reality, been played out for several years: the New Glenn and its 95 meters high, reusable and capable of depositing 50 tons in low orbit is considered to be the competitor of the Starship rocket that Elon Musk is developing to land on the Moon and go towards Mars. However, in reality, Bezos is too late. The explanation? Musk siphoned off all crucial public contracts – those from NASA and those from the Defense. It was he who was chosen to serve the Moon and it is thanks to this that he can develop his future big launcher. And if it was chosen, it is because of the tremendous success of its Falcon 9, which has become the first launcher on the market. Bezos, who disputes the choice of NASA, simply did not have the best record. The other lost battle is on the Defense side. Here again, Blue Origin has had its hair cut as part of the Air Force’s new national security launch program which is worth several billion dollars and runs between 2022 and 2027. A lapse of time which would have guaranteed him a certain financial base to develop his New Glenn. Here again, it was SpaceX which won the bet. The consequence was immediate: Blue Origin announced that the inaugural flight of the New Glenn would slip into the “fourth half of the year 2022″[Initially this was scheduled for … 2020, Editor’s note). The original fault of Jeff Bezos is to have always wanted to build Blue Origin on its own funds, by paying it in particular nearly 1 billion of its dividends each year. Such a strategy gave him freedom. But she didn’t let him go as fast as Elon Musk. By leaving the management of Amazon to focus on Blue Origin, his first task will be to go and win contracts rather than the Moon.


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