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Quiet and secretive Blue Origin hopes to start new chapter with Jeff Bezos’s space flight

Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos addresses the media about the New Shepard rocket booster and Crew Capsule mock-up at the 33rd annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs on April 5, 2017. (Isaiah Downing/Reuters)
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KENT, Wash. — Now it’s Jeff Bezos’s turn.

On Tuesday, 11 days after Richard Branson flew to space on Virgin Galactic’s rocket plane, Bezos is set to blast off through the atmosphere on his company’s rocket from his remote ranch in West Texas.

Like Branson, Bezos is a lifelong space enthusiast. And like Branson, he founded his company, Blue Origin, with the intent of starting a space tourism business that would dramatically expand the roster of astronauts, from about 570 today to several thousand in the years to come.

But Bezos (who owns The Washington Post) has ambitions much larger than sending customers to the edge of space, where they would enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness. Blue Origin — “blue” for the “pale blue dot” that is Earth, “origin” for where humanity began — is developing a new, massive rocket, a lunar lander designed to return astronauts to the moon and even space stations in Earth orbit, all with the goal of enabling a future where “millions of people are living and working in space.”

In a video produced for Blue Origin, founder Jeff Bezos talks his planned July 20 trip to space as part of the company's first crewed spaceflight. (Video: Blue Origin/Jeff Bezos via Storyful)

Bezos’s participation on his company’s first human spaceflight mission is a significant step toward that goal, a coming-of-age moment for what has been an obscure and quiet enigma of a company and an unusually high-profile showcase of what Bezos has said is “the most important work I’m doing.”

It would also be something of a public statement at a time when many in the space industry have lamented Blue Origin’s plodding, at times fitful progress.

The company has been thoroughly eclipsed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has moved faster and more adeptly. SpaceX is already flying NASA astronauts to orbit, and it won the NASA contract to fly them to the surface of the moon.

Blue Origin was also upstaged by Branson, who beat Bezos to space earlier this month. And when asked if there was a race on CNBC, Branson cheekily responded, “Jeff who?”

In a rare interview at Blue Origin’s headquarters outside Seattle, however, company officials said that years of behind-the-scenes preparation has set them up for a significant new chapter that many expect will be bolstered by renewed interest from Bezos, who is expected to spend more time at the company now that he has stepped down as CEO of Amazon.

Bezos’s launch would touch off a series of increasingly frequent human spaceflight missions on its New Shepard rocket that would fly space tourists on quick, suborbital jaunts through the atmosphere just past the edge of space.

Joining Bezos will be his brother, Mark; Wally Funk, an 82-year-old aviator who dreamed of going to space during the Mercury era; and an 18-year-old from the Netherlands who got the seat after the winner of a $28 million auction bowed out of the first flight because of a scheduling conflict. The auction gave the company a long list of potential customers, some willing to pay millions of dollars for the chance to ride to the edge of space in a capsule whose developers boast it has the largest windows ever sent to space.

If Tuesday’s launch is successful, the company plans two more human spaceflights by the end of this year, according to Blue Origin’s CEO, Bob Smith, and “more than half a dozen next year.”

And the company hopes “to be getting to an every-two-weeks kind of cadence very soon,” he said.

At first, Blue Origin will be offering seats on the early flights to the top bidders at a premium that could reach “tens of millions of dollars of sales,” Smith said. Eventually, it would offer a lower “catalogue” price to the public, he said.

In addition to its space tourism business, Blue Origin is pursuing other major projects, including developing a larger rocket, called New Glenn, that would be capable of flying to orbit, a spacecraft designed to land astronauts on the moon, and even a space station. It has rehabbed a historic launch site at Cape Canaveral, building a massive manufacturing campus nearby and another one in Huntsville, Ala. The company is grown to nearly 4,000 employees, and is finally, it appears, ready to carve out a niche in an industry full of big egos and flamboyant personalities.

“A lot of what we do looks like how Jeff runs companies,” Smith said. “You build momentum over time. And if you look at our history, it was in large part trying to figure out how do you actually go build that capability and then go scale that capability.”

Even though Blue Origin is privately held, that pattern is somewhat similar to Amazon, which took seven years to post its first quarterly profit and nine years before its first profitable year. Both companies have adopted an ethos of looking to the long term over immediate gains, and both can be extremely reticent.

“One of the reasons we are methodical and quiet is that we don’t have to say much,” Smith said. “We want to make sure that our results actually speak for themselves. We want to be humble. We want to be trusted. We want to be somebody who actually speaks more with what we have done.”

It has been a long road to get to this point, and in the meantime SpaceX has jumped to a massive lead that may be difficult to overcome.

Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, initially as a sort of think tank dedicated to studying the best way to get to space. Bezos and a small, hand-selected cohort, all of whom had the title, “member, technical staff,” looked at all sorts of alternatives to chemically fueled rockets, including at one point, using a giant bullwhip to fling payloads to orbit.

It ultimately decided that rockets, not slingshots, were the best way to go — but they needed to be reusable. Traditionally, the first stages of rockets ended up ditching in the ocean after reaching space, never to be used again. And so Bezos, like Musk, set out to develop rocket boosters that could fly back to Earth, land with precision and then fly again.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket grew out of that program, and it flew and landed for the first time in November 2015, a month ahead of SpaceX. But SpaceX’s landing of its Falcon 9 rocket was a far more difficult feat because the rocket is much more powerful and goes all the way to orbit. Still, Bezos told The Post at the time that the landing “was one of the greatest moments of my life. I was misty-eyed.” But he said the company would continue to meticulously test it to make sure it was safe for human spaceflight.

“We will fly the vehicle autonomously many, many times through a very methodical test program and that’ll take probably a couple of years,” he said at the time.

It’s taken a lot longer than that. But the test campaign needed to be thorough, especially if they were going to be flying people, officials here said.

“We didn’t take any shortcuts,” Smith said.

In all, the company has flown 15 test flights of its New Shepard vehicle, “gradually stepping up and expanding the envelope, pushing the vehicle in flight test to its design limits,” Gary Lai, the senior director of the New Shepard design team, said in an interview.

The company tested the capsule’s emergency escape system on the ground and twice during flight. During one test, they simulated a parachute failure so that the spacecraft landed under two instead of three.

In addition to the flight tests, there has been all sorts of work behind the scenes, Lai said.

“The flights are just kind of the tip of the iceberg — the part that floats above the water that people can see,” he said. “We test the vehicle on the ground, the components, the software, many, many more times than we fly them. Up to the point where when we do the flight tests we’re actually pretty confident it’s going to work.”

It took a long time, but the company now has a vehicle it is completely confident in.

“As an engineer you can never dispel the gremlins of unknown unknowns,” Lai said. “There are always going to be things that you wonder, ‘Well, what if I forgot about this?’ But in terms of going into this flight, I’m struggling to think of how much more thorough we could have been and yet still be committed to flying.”

The company’s standard “is not to fly professional astronauts who are knowingly taking a high degree of risk,” he said. “Our standard is to fly anybody for a space tourism mission and for them not actually to take any substantive risk.”

Internally, he said, the questions the engineers ask each other are simple: “Whether it’s safe enough to put our children on it. And I would be confident today putting my own kids on this vehicle.”

That’s why few at the company were surprised when Bezos announced that he would be on the first flight and bring his brother. It was a statement, they said, not just about his enthusiasm for exploration but a vote of confidence in the engineering team.

“He, more than anybody else, has been through all the technical details of the system and has been there through all the major decision points, including the testing program and all the data coming out of it,” said Ariane Cornell, the company’s director of astronaut and orbital sales. “So I’m not surprised at all that he said, ‘Hey, let’s go.’ I mean, it’s really been his dream, like a lot of us, to fly to space since he was a little kid.”

Bezos was 5 years old when he watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in 1969, which he has said was a “seminal” moment for him, touching off a lifelong passion for space. As a kid, he had a penchant for Star Trek and science fiction. And at Princeton University, he was president of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. While working for a hedge fund in New York before founding Amazon, he bid on space artifacts from the Soviet Union at a Sotheby’s auction but was outspent by Ross Perot.

He is so enthusiastic about the history of space that in 2013, he funded a mission that recovered, from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, the F-1 engines that were used in the Saturn V rocket that boosted the Apollo astronauts to the moon. He even chose the date of his launch, July 20, to coincide with the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

The New Shepard vehicle is named for Alan Shepard, the first American in space. The next rocket, which would be capable of reaching orbit, is named for John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. And the company has named the Airstream trailers where its space tourism customers would stay after not only Mercury 7 astronauts — Gus Grissom, Deke Slayton and Gordo Cooper — but also members of the Mercury 13, women who went through the same screening and testing as the first group of NASA astronauts but were never selected to fly: Jerrie Cobb, Myrtle Cagle, Rhea Woltman and Wally Funk.

(Bezos has a particular affinity for Airstream trailers. His grandparents were members of an Airstream trailer group, who hitched their campers to their cars and traveled the country.)

Bezos invited Funk to join him and his brother on the flight, and she enthusiastically accepted, hugging Bezos in a viselike embrace. Funk, who has spent 19,600 hours flying all sorts of aircraft, would break the record for the oldest person in space. John Glenn was 77 when he flew on the shuttle in 1998 as a U.S. senator.

Blue Origin doesn’t conduct physicals to make sure their customers are fit enough for the ride. But the company does “recommend that they visit with their doctor,” said Jeff Ashby, a former NASA astronaut who is Blue Origin’s chief of mission assurance. “We give them a list of the things that they’ll be exposed to and we’d like them to discuss with their doctor.”

During the 10-minute flight on New Shepard, passengers will experience about 3 G’s, or three times the force of gravity, for a couple of minutes going up and 5 G’s for a few seconds on the descent. That should not be a problem for most.

“Our short space flight is closer to an airline flight than a trip aboard, say, the space shuttle,” he said.

And Funk said she’s ecstatic about flying with Bezos. “I like to do things no one has ever done,” she said in an Instagram post.