With Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos wins the first battle in space tourism

On July 20, Blue Origin will become the first private company to send a real tourist into space. For the occasion, his very wealthy boss Jeff Bezos – who will leave the presidency of Amazon in July – will be part of the trip. Who could have bet that he would cap his two best enemies Richard Branson and Elon Musk, respectively directors of Virgin Galactic and SpaceX? Certainly not the general public. “Bezos and Musk have radically opposed characters, the first advancing in the shadows, seeking to remain as discreet as possible, when the second is attracted by the light – he tweets like crazy at each launch”, notes Pierre-José Billote , president of 3I3S, an international association dedicated to aeronautical and space applications.

But faithful to the motto Gradatim ferociter (“step by step, ferociously”, in Latin), and spinning the metaphor of the hare and the tortoise of La Fontaine, Jeff Bezos knew how to make the right technological choices while taking advantage of the setbacks of his opponents. His New Shepard rocket, for example, is much smaller than that of his rival Elon Musk. This difference in design is not due to chance: New Shepard was developed on own funds ($ 1 billion each year) for a single purpose: space tourism. Thus, the launcher is “content” to reach an altitude of 100 kilometers to offer its wealthy passengers (we are talking about a ticket oscillating between 200,000 and 300,000 dollars) a quick excursion (11 minutes) beyond the famous Karman line, in order to see the curvature of the Earth and to live the experience of flying in the absence of gravity. Elon Musk’s rocket is designed to send several tons of material into space to supply the International Space Station (ISS) or put satellites into orbit. She can go much higher in altitude, which Elon Musk does not fail to point out whenever he has the opportunity on social networks.

Like in an elevator

However, the size of a rocket also makes its vertical landing more perilous. And while SpaceX solved the problem – its Falcon 9 is reusable up to ten times – Blue Origin has had it easier on paper. After fifteen successful trials, its technology back to Earth seems perfectly controlled. “For passengers, the experience is so sweet that it could be similar to that of an elevator”, even considers Christophe Bonnal, an expert at the launchers department of the National Center for Space Studies (CNES).

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Virgin Galactic, the other competitor of Blue Origin, has not had such a smooth course, again the fault of less relevant technological choices. To propel tourists to an altitude of 100 kilometers, Richard Branson relies on a rocket plane attached to a jumbo jet. Once it reaches cruising altitude, the aircraft containing the tourists is released. Its engine ignites then its trajectory rears up to flirt with space. This complex system mobilizing two aircraft and using a so-called “hybrid” propulsion has experienced several serious incidents: an explosion on the ground in 2007 costing the lives of three people and the disintegration of an aircraft in mid-flight in 2014 in which a pilot lost life. Human error seems to be at the root of this latest tragedy. But Virgin Galactic took a long time to master the vibrations inherent in its so-called “hybrid” propulsion. During the testing phases, the device seemed to be pushed to its extreme limit, on the verge of scrapping, leaving many experts skeptical. The successful flight last month gave them hope. But all the while, Blue Origin was methodically advancing towards its goal.

If the July 20 flight goes off without a hitch, it could be said that Jeff Bezos has won an important victory. He did not win the war, however. For many specialists, orbital tourism – at a much higher altitude – could ultimately prevail over suborbital tourism. The bricks of this new activity are gradually being put in place: SpaceX can now serve as a taxi to the ISS and future floating hotels like that of the American start-up Axiom. The Russians are also offering space trips to non-professionals and the Chinese will do the same on their future station … In a few years, a large rocket like SpaceX’s Starship will be able to put several dozen tourists into orbit at the time.

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But above all, orbital tourism will offer a much longer experience than a simple chip jump. “It’s not just a flight. You will spend a week in a” Spatioport “, pampered, pampered with your family or friends. There will be 0g simulation pools, small planes to loop and have sensations which are going well, a centrifuge, but also luxury shops and restaurants. That’s all that is sold, “said a space expert. With an experience that lasts an hour at most, those involved in suborbital flight will undoubtedly have a hard time struggling. But what does it matter for Jeff Bezos whose vision is not limited to a few short leaps below the Karman line. His Blue Shepard also serves as a demonstrator for future human installations on the Moon or Mars. And the billionaire is already preparing a heavy launcher to carve out croupiers at SpaceX. Called New Glenn, its first launch could take place at the end of 2022.


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Frédéric Filloux is a columnist for L'Express and editor of the Monday Note.Frederic Filloux


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