A couple of weeks after Jeff Bezos officially steps down as CEO of Amazon, he’ll leap into something more mythic: riding to the edge of space aboard one of his own rockets, alongside his brother, in a flight that would fulfill a lifelong dream.
The flight will mark a significant milestone for Blue Origin, which lags behind Elon Musk’s SpaceX in the competition for billions of dollars in NASA and Pentagon contracts and which flies a more powerful rocket capable of taking people and supplies into orbit.
It will also mark a moment when the long promised arrival of space tourism seems to be drawing closer and a major transition for Bezos, inevitably raising questions about the risk to him and to Amazon. Space travel remains a dangerous undertaking, though the requirements for future private passengers are nowhere near what the public is accustomed to connecting with space travel.
“Ever since I was five years old, I’ve dreamed of traveling to space,” Bezos said in an Instagram post Monday. “On July 20, I will take that journey with my brother. The greatest adventure, with my best friend. #Gradatim Ferociter.”
Graditum ferociter is Blue Origin’s motto, a Latin phrase that Bezos translates to mean “step by step, ferociously.”
Unlike NASA astronauts, Bezos and his fellow passengers won’t undergo any of the rigorous training that for so long has characterized space travel. Blue Origin warns that passengers must climb seven flights of stairs to reach the capsule and that they must also be able to sit for 90 minutes without access to a bathroom. But with all functions of the flight commanded by computers, the passengers won’t be called on to take the controls.
The flight would make Bezos the first of the billionaire “space barons” to go to space. Neither Musk nor Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson have ridden on their companies’ rockets. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Bezos has long been fascinated with space. An avid science fiction reader and big “Star Trek” fan as a child, he has called watching the Apollo 11 moon landing a “seminal” moment for him, even though he was just five years old at the time. He even chose “Goddard” as the middle name for one of his sons after Robert Goddard, the founder of modern rocketry.
Blue Origin, based outside Seattle, has successfully flown its New Shepard rocket and spacecraft to space 15 times, without passengers. Last month, Branson’s Virgin Galactic completed its third human spaceflight, and Branson, who will turn 71 on July 18, has said he hopes to fly later this year. In an interview with The Washington Post after the flight, he said he was actively preparing for the mission.
“One good thing about covid is it enabled me to get as fit as I’ve felt since I was in my 20s,” he said. “It’s great to be able to really work on getting your body fit for spaceflight, and I’m going to enjoy every single minute of it.”
On Twitter Monday, Branson congratulated Bezos and said the two companies “are opening up access to Space — how extraordinary!”
Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000 and in recent years has said it is “the most important work I’m doing.” The goal of the company is to build the infrastructure to give humanity access to space more routinely and reliably and to allow for “millions of people living and working in space.”
He has said that his “singular focus is people in space. I want people in space.”
The New Shepard is named for Alan Shepard, who became the first American to go to space in 1961. Like that first suborbital flight, New Shepard shoots straight up, flying past 60 miles to reach the edge of space before falling back to Earth. The flight takes about 10 minutes in all, with a few minutes of weightlessness in space.
As many as six people can fit inside the New Shepard crew cabin, each with their own seat and window — the largest window ever flown to space. The spacecraft, which launches from a site outside Van Horn, Tex., is outfitted with handrails to assist during the few minutes of weightless. Once in space, the spacecraft will use its thrusters to rotate, so passengers get 360-degree views that the company says “will change how you see the world.”
Blue Origin has not yet said how much it would charge for individual tickets. Virgin Galactic had charged as much as $250,000 before closing sales. When Virgin Galactic restarts sales later this year, some analysts have predicted the price will be closer to $500,000.
While some have derided space tourism flights for the rich, Bezos has defended them, saying they are a good way for the company to practice flying and that a lot of new technologies have grown out of entertainment — such as how video games helped boost computing power.
“Tourism often leads to new technologies,” he said during a forum at The Post in 2016. “And then those new technologies often circle back around and get used in very important, utilitarian ways.”
In rules for the online auction now underway to chose the third member of the crew, which is set to culminate Saturday, Blue Origin said passengers must be able to endure three times the force of gravity for two minutes during the ascent, and five-and-a-half times the force of gravity for a few seconds during descent.
Participants must also be between 5 feet and 6-feet-4-inches tall and weigh between 110 and 223 pounds.
To earn a license from the Federal Aviation Administration, Blue Origin must show how it protects people and property on the ground. But the safety of the passengers is governed by an “informed consent” standard, similar to skydiving and bungee jumping: Passengers simply need to acknowledge the considerable risks of the venture before blasting off.
Musk, who has often been critical of Blue Origin’s progress, did not comment immediately on Bezos’s plans. SpaceX recently beat out Blue Origin for a major NASA contract to develop a spacecraft capable of landing astronauts on the moon. Blue Origin, which had teamed up with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper, is protesting the award through the Government Accountability Office.
In a statement to The Post about that contract, Musk said Blue Origin’s bid, which was twice that of SpaceX, was “way too high.”
He added that Bezos “needs to run BO full-time for it to be successful,” Musk wrote. “Frankly, I hope he does.”
The auction for the third seat on the Blue Origin flight is intended to raise money for Club for the Future, the company’s nonprofit, which is geared toward encouraging students to pursue careers in science, technology engineering and math.
On July 5, Bezos will step down as chief executive of Amazon (he will stay on as executive chairman). Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener did not respond to a question about whether Bezos had sought permission from Amazon’s board for the flight.
Bezos has used billions in Amazon shares to fund Blue Origin ventures.
“I wasn’t even expecting him to say that he was going to be on the first flight,” Bezos’s brother Mark said in the Instagram video. “What a remarkable opportunity, not only to have this adventure but to do it with my best friend.”
Jay Greene contributed from Seattle.