If a Jeff Bezos company is in the headlines this time of year, it’s usually Amazon and its exhausting—even dangerous—rush to prepare hundreds of thousands of packages a day.
But Bezos would probably prefer you read about a different company of his, the one that is doing, as he has put it, his “most important work”: Blue Origin, his space venture.
Blue Origin this week launched a rocket to the edge of space and back, its 12th test flight. The New Shepard rocket—named for Alan Shepard, the first American to go into space—took off from a test site in the middle of the Texas desert, with a gumdrop-shaped capsule on its nose.
The vehicle climbed 66 miles (106 kilometers) into the sky, piercing an upper-atmosphere boundary that is considered the beginning of outer space. The capsule and the rocket came apart, and then began their separate descents to the ground. The rocket landed vertically, firing its engines to slow itself and touch down with a gentle bounce. The capsule coasted down beneath a trio of puffy parachutes, kicking up a ring of dust as it settled on the desert.
Next year, Bezos hopes, people will walk out of that capsule, grinning from ear to ear—the picture of satisfied customers. In the scheme of grandiose plans for space, this one is relatively small. But in 2020, it could make Blue Origin the first company to regularly ferry customers to space, an accomplishment that fits tidily into Bezos’s principle of “customer obsession,” which focuses on the consumer over the competition. And, as with Amazon, Blue Origin’s seemingly simple goal underlies a much more expansive vision.
The New Shepard system is designed to carry groups of six to the edge of space, where passengers would be able to unbuckle from their seats and experience weightlessness. The capsule’s big window would provide panoramic views of the hazy curvature of a gleaming Earth against the inky darkness of space. And on their way up, they would experience some of the same shakes and sounds, and the crushing pressure of gravity, as real astronauts do. The suborbital trip, from launch to landing, would take just 10 minutes. Bezos wants to fly customers a few times a week, with only a day of training and a signed waiver acknowledging the risks.
Bezos hasn’t said how much a ticket would cost. But if the prices offered by other space-tourism companies, such as fellow billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, are an indication, admission could be as much as $250,000. It is a steep charge for a few minutes of weightlessness and wonder, but the experience is, from another perspective, considerably more accessible than, say, a trip around the moon or to Mars. It is perhaps the most commercial option of all—the space-exploration equivalent of one-day delivery.
Blue Origin had hoped to send its first passengers toward space before 2019 was over. During the flight’s webcast this week, Ariane Cornell, the company’s director of sales, said a crewed flight would happen “very soon.” Blue Origin did not respond to requests for more detail.
Blue Origin is almost 20 years old, and was founded before other big space companies, such as Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Blue Origin even beat SpaceX to a milestone that now seems almost routine for the industry: flying a rocket and then reusing it. The rocket booster in this week’s launch had already flown five times.
But it has been the tortoise in the race—the animal is the company’s actual mascot—and 2019 felt like its most important season yet. The company has conducted what could be the last few flights of New Shepard before people come onboard. It has expanded the factory at Cape Canaveral, in Florida, where it plans to build another, much bigger rocket, New Glenn—named for John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth—which would compete with vehicles like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. And it has unveiled a lunar lander that it wants the Trump administration to use in its mission to return people to the moon in 2024.
The New Shepard trips are a stepping stone for a bigger, science-fiction vision for Bezos, who grew up watching the moon landings and led his college’s chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. The billionaire wants future generations to construct a space station in orbit around Earth, perpetually in motion to produce artificial gravity, where humankind would re-create cities, national parks, even famous sites.
As the richest person on Earth, Bezos isn’t worried about the company’s profitability. “Right now, the business model with Blue Origin is I sell Amazon stock,” Bezos told Steven Levy in Wired last year. “I’m willing to be patient for decades.” In the future that Jeff Bezos imagines, years from now, when the planet is that much more damaged and the infrastructure exists to help humanity off the planet, he believes that people will recognize his foresight. The edge of space is just the first step.