Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos wants to send you to space on a Blue Origin rocket, and the data gathered during those little trips on the New Shepard to the border between Earth and space will help develop the technology that will one day carry humans throughout our solar system and beyond.
“Another thing that you really need to shrink costs is practice,” Bezos said Tuesday at the 2017 SATELLITE Conference and Exhibition in Washington, D.C. “That’s one of the reasons we did New Shepard first. New Shepard is a suborbital tourism vehicle. And that mission is so important for us because that’s a mission that can be flown many many times a year. We will get so much practice.”
The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics estimated in 2003 that up to 82 percent of Americans had flown in an airplane, and Bezos wants going to space to become as common as hopping on a flight from one city to another.
“We need to get to a place ultimately that is much more like commercial airliners, and obviously you can’t get a commercial airliner if the airline throws it away after every trip,” Bezos said.
New Shepard is essentially a practice rocket for perfecting Blue Origin’s grand plan to colonize the moon and the rest of space, allowing the company to fine tune the process of making reusable hardware.
The biggest part of making space tourism a reality is reducing costs enough that it’s feasible for actual human beings to go to space, and not just the wealthy. Elon Musk may be getting close to cracking the space tourism market wide open, but right now, tickets on a Falcon 9 ride are still prohibitively expensive. But both Bezos and Musk’s plan focus on reusing rockets, which are one of the most expensive parts of any space mission.
“The cost of launch is driven largely by the hardware. The propel [feul] costs are vanishingly small,” Bezos said, “typically less than a million dollars.”
The key to reusing rockets, of course, is landing them safely. Like SpaceX, Blue Origin plans to land reusable rockets upright on droneships. If a steady cycle of intact rockets can cut costs enough to send plenty of wannabe astronauts to the stars, Bezos thinks his advancements will be a boon to the entire industry — including blazing the trail for his commercial efforts with New Glenn.
“On New Shepard, the tourism mission is I think very important,” Bezos said. “There’s historical cases where entertainment turns out to be a driver of technologies that then become very practical and utilitarian.”
Bezos likened space tourism to “barnstorming,” a practice in the early days of traditional aviation, when pilots would fly around the country, touching down in farmers’ fields and giving the local kids a ride on a plane, selling tickets and bringing in interest and money to the new industry.
“The entertainment industry can often be a driver of technology that then gets repurposed, and that’s what the New Shepard program tourism mission because we can fly so frequently, it’s going to be a real driver of our technology,” he said.
It’s too early to tell whether Bezos’s plan will work, as the company doesn’t have clear dates for when it will start space tourism in earnest. But one thing’s for sure — it’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun.