Clicky

Shipping News and Reviews

Billionaires had their flights into space, what does that mean for everyone else?

It's not that they don't know how to put on a show. Branson had Steven Colbert standing by to crack jokes when he started. Bezos had every news organization try to set a record on the use of the word "historical". Both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin had their own teams with rousing music, sharp promo reels and breathless announcements. Oh, and there were uniforms – both companies gave everyone their best faux-right chic.

And of course, Bezos had Wally Funk, whose long-belated voyage beyond the atmosphere is possibly the only pure good that emerges from both flights.

What's happening now? Not a lot, really.

Bezos' sadly formed New Shepard appears to be a reliable automated pogo stick that can send people up for five minutes and then down for five minutes. The biggest problem with the craft is why it's so incredibly slow. Not slow in terms of airspeed but so incredibly slow to get to that flight. Blue Origin was actually founded in 2000, two years before SpaceX. The company continued its first attempt at a vertical landing in 2005, eight years before the SpaceX test vehicle "Grashopper". And then … Blue Origin just seemed to get stuck in molasses.

The company that has the motto Gradatim Ferociter (step by step, wild) had shown very little ferocity and not even many steps. New Shepard first flew in 2015 and seems to have changed little over the past six years. During that time, the Bezos missile company has made an average of just over two suborbital launches per year. By comparison, SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 fleet 26 times in 2020 alone, sending three crews into orbit.

Blue Origin is set to build a very large new rocket called the New Glenn that would compete with SpaceX when it came to putting cargo into orbit. And like SpaceX's Elon Musk, Bezos said he had a long-term goal in space. In the case of Bezos, that is the construction of large orbital stations where thousands or even millions could live and work. However, while SpaceX's successes – and its explosive failures – have been very visible, there is very little evidence of progress with the New Glenn. There's a very impressive new factory just outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center, but all the public saw of the new rocket was one half of a fairing – though Bezos supplied a pair of the new engines that Blue Origin had theirs with Glenn. as well as United Launch Alliance's upcoming Vulcan missile.

In any case, New Shepard has done its job – promoting a company that has had very little investment to show for 20 years in terms of technological advancement. It will now offer its not-quite-as-good flights as in 1961 to anyone who can raise the price. However, given the speed at which the rocket has been spun in the past, it doesn't seem like Bezos is really going to pull any profit out of this ticket window.

There's an equivalent not-much on Branson's side of the ledger. When aircraft designer Burt Rutan designed SpaceShipOne, he did so with a very specific goal: to win the Ansasi-X Prize. What Branson has now is just another generation of the same design. It can go up to 53 miles and slide back, but it's not a scalable solution. Not only will it never ever reach orbit, it's also not really something that could be put into a design that could go into orbit. And as for his space ambitions, that seems like the limit for Branson. He has another company, Virgin Orbit, which launches small satellites, and their LauncherOne rocket has successfully entered orbit.

One thing Bezos has about Branson is automation. The VSS Unity requires some very experienced pilots at all stages of the flight. A previous vehicle was actually lost and a pilot died. A flight was only canceled a few months ago when the rocket engine failed. In terms of security, Bezos probably has that well above Branson. There is no doubt that Branson would still be putting his ship through its paces if Bezos hadn't announced his flight. Oh, and Branson started building his plane in 2008 with predictions that it would fly by 2010, so it's not like he's right on schedule. Don't expect many additional flights from Virgin Galactic this year either.

Overall, both companies have built vehicles that demonstrate how decades of new technology can turn an experience limited to the most advanced pilots in 1960 into a short, fun drive for the very wealthy. Neither of them seem to repeat their trick with great regularity, or to expand their system into something more than an even more expensive version of Space Mountain.

And while there is a lot of talk about how these voyages into space could give people "new perspectives", don't rely on them. When the first images of Apollo 8 came back, showing the whole earth as a single blue sphere, trapped in the infinite night, it was an illuminating, even spiritual moment; one that made many people rethink their positions on nations, humanity, and the environment. But what these billionaires and millionaires are likely to get from their very high flight is another perspective: how small we all appear from their privileged position.

The only success that could really count for these guys is Barron's report that Virgin Galactic stock is being "hammered" after the Blue Origin flight. This is the kind of achievement that is important to the modern space pioneer.

Comments are closed.