COLORADO SPRINGS - Looking out a large window from inside a mockup space capsule on Wednesday, Jeff Bezos pondered how Alan Shepard felt as he prepared to become the first American in space on May 5, 1961.
“Must have been pretty cool,” Bezos said in an appearance at the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. “Everybody says that when you go to space, it changes you. All the astronauts come back with stories like that. It’s very emotional to see this Earth, see the thin limb of the atmosphere.”
The billionaire founder and CEO of Amazon.com hopes his private space company, Blue Origin, will begin flying test pilots next year on suborbital rides of the booster and capsule he named New Shepard to honor the trailblazing NASA astronaut. Paying passengers will follow “when we’re ready,” he said.
“We’re going to make it as safe as we can make it,” he told reporters and a crowd of onlookers. “We’re going to test it. We’re not going to take any shortcuts.”
No ticket price has been set for the trips that will launch from western Texas and offer about four minutes of weightlessness, an experience similar to one that Virgin Galactic markets for $250,000.
But Bezos offered his future customers one bit of humorous advice: “Go to the bathroom in advance.”
The six-seat capsule lacks facilities, but he joked that shouldn’t be a problem on such a short flight. “If you have to pee in 11 minutes, you got problems,” he said.
The suborbital New Shepard system is a precursor to launches of the much larger New Glenn rocket now being designed for orbital missions. The New Glenn, named for first-American-in-orbit John Glenn, will be built at Kennedy Space Center’s Exploration Park and is targeting a 2020 first launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
It will be years later before the rocket launches people into orbit, Bezos said, but that is his primary goal.
“My singular focus is people in space,” he said. “Ultimately, most of our flights will be taking people into space. That is going to take a while.”
Bezos disclosed for the first time that he expects the New Glenn to cost about $2.5 billion to develop, mostly funded by his own money.
“My business model right now for Blue Origin is I sell about a billion dollars a year of Amazon stock, and I use it to invest in Blue Origin,” he said.
He said it’s important that the company eventually become profitable and self-sustaining, “but it’s a long road to get there, and I’m happy to invest in it.”
A 750,000-square-foot manufacturing facility at KSC’s Exploration Park is expected to be ready to start making New Glenn rocket stages in the first half of next year. Ground is being cleared at the Cape’s Launch Complexes 36 and 11 for a new launch pad and engine test stand.
The New Shepard rocket that has completed five launches and landings during unmanned tests has been on display outside the space industry’s biggest annual conference.
The booster arrived days after SpaceX became the first company to re-launch a larger booster capable of putting missions in orbit, with a Falcon 9 rocket’s March 30 satellite launch from KSC.
Bezos said he and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk are of the same mind that making rockets reusable represents the Holy Grail of spaceflight, holding the possibility of drastically lowering launch costs.
“If we can make access to space low cost, then entrepreneurs will be unleashed,” he said. “You will see the same thing in space that I’ve witnessed on the internet over the last 20 years, and believe me, that’s fun.”
Next to the 50-foot-tall New Shepard booster, which is destined for a museum, Blue Origin this week has been offering Space Symposium attendees the chance to climb inside a mockup capsule to see its interior and sit in seats that will be used for space missions.
The cushioned black-and-blue seats with harnesses and head restraints will remain reclined throughout the suborbital flight to help distribute G-loads, which will reach about three times a person’s weight on Earth during ascent and briefly five-and-a-half times that weight during the capsule’s drop through the atmosphere.
The acrylic, multi-paned windows, each more than 1,000 square inches, will be the largest flown in space. Back lit with blue light, the black window frames double as handles passenger can hold on to.
“These are not the portholes that Alan Shepard had,” said Ariane Cornell, Blue Origin’s head of business development and strategy, referring to Shepard’s compact Mercury program Freedom 7 spacecraft. "This was built for our customers."
Tablet screens at each seat will offer camera views of the rocket lifting off and the capsule deploying parachutes. At landing, retro rockets will fire to soften a touchdown at about 2 mph. A round center console covers the abort engine that would allow the capsule to escape if the rocket were in danger of failing.
While Bezos has wanted to fly in space since he was a kid, when he was inspired by NASA's Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, he acknowledged that he’s not sure how big the market for space tourism will be.
“I’ve thrown parties before that nobody came to,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to be the case here. I’m super-optimistic. But customers get to decide what the flight rates are. I hope they decide they want to fly.”
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