On Tuesday, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, Jeff Bezos and three others blasted off in a private rocket designed and built by Bezos’ own company, Blue Origin, and named New Shepard, after Alan Shepard, the first American in space.
In scientific terms, the flight of the second billionaire in space — coming a little more than a week after Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson took to the heavens in a space plane his company built — doesn’t amount to much. Reaching an altitude of 66 miles in a flight lasting 10 minutes, Bezos and his fellow New Shepard astronauts didn’t even match what Alan Shepard accomplished in his Mercury capsule on May 5, 1961. Shepard reached an altitude of 116 miles, and his flight lasted 15½ minutes.
The New Shepard flight did set at least two records, however. One of the passengers, Wally Funk, who was one of 13 female pilots who went through the same tests as the all-male astronaut corps in the early 1960s, set the record for the oldest person in space at 82. Another passenger, 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, is now the youngest.
But in terms of humanity’s future in space, the New Shepard flight may be even more important. Ultimately, the dream of Bezos, Branson and SpaceX’s Elon Musk, the third “space billionaire” driving the 21st century’s space race, is to make space accessible to everyone.
Just as space travel was the stuff of science fiction before it became reality, so, too, was private space travel. In 1940, science fiction writer Robert Heinlein published a story, “Requiem,” about a space tycoon who pioneers private space travel and succeeds ultimately in helping make trips to the moon as routine as a flight from New York to Paris.
But where the main character in Heinlein’s story is initially thwarted from going into space himself, Bezos and Branson have not been, and they both see space as a place where we all belong.
“We’re here to make space more accessible to all,” Branson said after his July 11 flight. “The mission statement that I wrote inside my spacesuit was to turn the dream of space travel into a reality for my grandchildren ... and for many people who are alive today, for everybody.”
Branson’s mission statement may strike many as far-fetched. Private space flight is still the domain of the ultra-rich. A seat on Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity runs $250,000 apiece. The four passengers who will eventually fly in SpaceX’s Dragon capsule to the International Space Station will have to pony up $55 million each. Blue Origin has not yet announced pricing for its suborbital flights, but as the saying goes, if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.
Certainly, space is still the domain either of governments or the super-wealthy. That has inflamed the resentments of many who see every billionaire as a “policy failure” who should be taxed back down to Earth. Never mind that confiscating everything Bezos has would fund the U.S. government for about a week. Then what?
Every new technology and virtually every new form of travel has started out as the province of governments and the rich. Christopher Columbus needed financing from Spain to cross the Atlantic. Now anyone can do it.
Only millionaires once could afford mobile phones, and the phones were the size of the Frankenstein monster’s shoe. Now almost anyone can have a mobile phone that fits in a pocket and has more computing power than Alan Shepard’s Mercury spacecraft. This has been the story of every new technology from fine china dishes to personal computers. The ultra-rich beta test it and keep it alive until it can be mass produced and prices fall. Eventually, anyone can afford to eat dinner off queensware.
Perhaps Branson’s timeline is overly optimistic, but he’s right that space belongs to everyone, and in the future, everyone will be able to realize that promise.