If there’s one thing that the ultra-rich of the 21st century have in common besides their astronomical wealth, that would be astronomy itself. Over the past decade, an increasing number of mega-billionaires—from Jeff Bezos to Elon Musk to Richard Branson—have joined the race to be the first man to launch regular humans (not just professional astronauts) into outer space. While none of them have succeeded, Bezos, the richest of the richest bunch, believes his rocket company, Blue Origin, already has a leg up in the race.
This weekend, the recently scandal-ridden Amazon chief made an unusual appearance at the Yale Club in New York City to speak during a private event, where he was interviewed by Space News writer Jeff Foust on various topics regarding Blue Origin and his competitors in the 21st century space race. Business Insider first reported on the event.
Before diving into space topics, it’s worth knowing that, unlike Musk’s SpaceX, which is backed by generous outside investors, Blue Origins’ operation is funded solely by Bezos’ day job, AKA Amazon (AMZN). (He has been shifting $1 billion worth of Amazon holdings into Blue Origin since April 2017.) And for that, the Amazon founder wanted to properly thank all Amazon shoppers. “Every time you buy shoes, you’re helping fund Blue Origin, so thank you,” he said. “I appreciate it very much.”
One big thing to expect from Blue Origin in the near future: One of its New Shepard rockets, a 59-foot-tall reusable vehicle, is going to send the first human tourist into space—and bring them back—by the end of 2019.
Bezos said the New Sherpard rocket is the most mature vehicle among Blue Origin’s offerings so far and that the company had successfully tested all aspects of its launch, including a complicated escape system.
In addition, Bezos stressed that Blue Origin’s first human passengers can proudly call themselves “astronauts,” as the rocket will fly them well above the Karman line, the altitude defining the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.
“So for most of the world, the edge of space is defined as 100 kilometers [62 miles]. In the U.S. it’s different [80 kilometers or 50 miles]. We fly to 106 kilometers [66 miles],” Bezos explained, adding that this altitude is unreachable by Branson’s Virgin Galactic (SPCE), which is mulling a similar space tourism program, because its “vehicle isn’t quite capable.”
The highest point Virgin Galactic’s rockets have reached to date is 82.7 km (51.4 miles), accomplished by a VSS Unity spaceplane in December 2018. The altitude would qualify it as entering outer space by the U.S. standard, but not international.
“We’ve always had as our mission that we wanted to fly above the Karman line, because we didn’t want there to be any asterisks next to your name about whether you’re an astronaut,” Bezos said proudly.
That said, however, Bezos hinted that he’s not interested in taking humans too far beyond the Karman line just yet. And those who do, such as Mars-aiming Musk, strike him as quite pointless.
“One thing I find very un-motivating is the kind of ‘Plan B’ argument, where the Earth gets destroyed, where you want to be somewhere else. It doesn’t work for me,” Bezos said of the idea of migrating to Mars. “[To] my friends who want to move to Mars, I’d say, ‘Do me a favor, go live on the top of Mount Everest for a year first, and see if you like it—because it’s a garden paradise compared to Mars.'”