Billionaire Jeff Bezos to step down as Amazon CEO and fly into space. Who is going next?

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Jeff Bezos at the unveiling of the Blue Origin New Shepard system during the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on April 5, 2017. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Dubai: Jeff Bezos, the 57-year-old Amazon founder, will blast into space on July 20 becoming the first person to go beyond the Earth’s boundaries on his own rocket.

The flight is expected to herald the beginning of space tourism, with several companies working towards flying a host of private astronauts.

Accompanying Bezos will be his younger brother and best friend, Mark, an investor and volunteer firefighter, and an unidentified person who paid $28 million for the trip.

Blue Origin’s debut flight with people aboard takes place after 15 successful test flights of its reusable New Shepard rockets. It coincides with the 52nd anniversary of the first moon landing by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin.

To see the Earth from space, it changes you. It changes your relationship with this planet, with humanity. It’s one Earth.

– Jeff Bezos, billionaire businessman

The proceeds from the winning ticket will be donated to Blue Origin’s foundation, Club for the Future, a science and education charity that aims to “inspire future generations to pursue careers” in science, technology and math, and stir an interest in space exploration.

Dream to go to space

Bezos said he has dreamed of travelling to space since he was 5.

“To see the Earth from space, it changes you. It changes your relationship with this planet, with humanity. It’s one Earth,” Bezos said in an Instagram post. “I want to go on this flight because it’s a thing I’ve wanted to do all my life. It’s an adventure. It’s a big deal for me.”

Blue Origin
This undated file illustration provided by Blue Origin shows the capsule that the company aims to take tourists into space. Image Credit: AP

His brother added: “I wasn’t even expecting him to say that he was going to be on the first flight, and then when he asked me to go along, I was just awestruck.”

Bezos will step down as Amazon’s CEO 15 days before liftoff. He announced months ago that he wants to spend more time on his rocket company as well as his newspaper, The Washington Post.

His stake in Amazon stands at $164 billion, which will make him by far the wealthiest person to fly to space.

Who can go to space?

Almost anyone. At least anyone who can afford it.

But there are conditions, of course. Blue Origin said the winner must be able to endure three times the force of gravity for two minutes on ascent and five and a half times the force of gravity for a few seconds on the way down. Participants must be between five feet and 6 feet 4 inches tall and weigh between 45kg and 101kg.

Graphic space
Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal, Assistant Product Manager

Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, said that most people would be able to fly on the Dragon spacecraft. “If you can go on a roller-coaster ride, like an intense roller coaster ride, you should be fine for flying on Dragon,” he recently said.

Virgin Galactic’s website doesn’t list any physical requirements for its future astronauts. “We will prepare every astronaut thoroughly, through a program of medical checkups and tailored training,” it promises.

How long will the trip take?

The flight by Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule, named for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, will last 10 minutes, five minutes less than Shepard’s history-marking suborbital ride aboard a Mercury capsule in 1961.

But Blue Origin’s capsule is 10 times roomier with a huge window at every seat – the biggest windows ever built for a spacecraft, in fact.

The completely automated capsule can carry up to six passengers, each with their own big window.

Blue Origin New Shepard capsule
In this image from video made available by Blue Origin, the New Shepard capsule uses parachutes to land during a test in West Texas on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Image Credit: AP

According to the video, the passenger capsule sits atop the booster – they separate at an altitude of about 250,000 feet, but they continue their ascent.

At roughly 350,000 feet, or about 10 times higher than normal commercial jet flights, passengers will be allowed to unbuckle for three minutes of weightlessness. After that, they’ll be asked to buckle up and their descent will be guided by three parachutes, according to the video.

Passengers are promised they will get to see the Earth from a distance, view the dark sky above and marvel at the curvature of the Earth.

How much does a ticket to space cost?

That depends. An unnamed person has paid $28m to fly to space with Bezos on the Blue Origin next month.

To fly to the International Space Station for a week on a trip commissioned by Axiom Space will cost $55 million. Some of that amount goes to NASA, which under new private astronaut pricing guidelines charges $10 million a week per private astronaut for crew time, mission planning and communications. It also charges other, smaller fees, including $2,000 a day per person for food, Washington Post reported.

Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s space venture, had been charging $250,000 for suborbital flights, where passengers would experience a few minutes of weightlessness before falling back to Earth. But the company has said that the cost would go up. Analysts have said they expect it to be $500,000.

Hazzaa Al Mansouri became the first Arab astronaut to enter the International Space Station on September 25, 2019 and only the third Arab in space after Saudi Arabia’s Sultan Bin Salman Bin Abdul Aziz (1985), and Syria’s Mohammad Faris (1987). Read more

What sort of training is involved to go to space?

Unlike the training needed for NASA astronauts, suborbital space trips require a different kind of preparation. Blue Origin says on its website that the training for its flights lasts only a day. “The day before launch, you’ll learn everything you need to know to make the most of your experience as an astronaut.”

The training “includes mission and vehicle overviews, in-depth safety briefings, mission simulation and instruction on your in-flight activities such as operational procedures, communications and maneuvering in a weightless environment.”

Virgin Galactic said its goal is to offer its future astronauts “an unmatched safe and affordable journey to space without the need for any special prior experience or significant prior training and preparation.”

Graphic space Blue Origin Jeff Bezos
Image Credit: Graphic News / Gulf News

The training is expected to last three days at Spaceport America in New Mexico, where passengers “will go through a customised medical screening and flight preparation process, including training for use of communication systems, flight protocols, emergency procedures and G-force training.”

They’ll learn how “to exit their seats and experience weightlessness, floating about the cabin and positioning themselves at one of the many windows around the cabin sides and top. After enjoying several minutes of weightlessness, our astronauts will manoeuvre back to their own seats to prepare for reentry and the journey back into the Earth’s atmosphere.”

Over the years, Virgin Galactic has built a community of want-to-be astronauts who have done training in coordination with Virgin Galactic by flying “Zero-G” parabolic flights and going to a centrifuge to help them adapt to increased gravity forces.

Axiom Space, which offers a much more ambitious mission of a week on the International Space Station, has a training curriculum that lasts 17 weeks at facilities run by NASA and the Japanese and European space agencies.

Passengers train alongside their mission commander.

Blue Origin Bezos space simulator
In this file photo taken on June 05, 2019, participants leave the Blue Origin Space Simulator at the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. Image Credit: AFP

Where is the launch site?

Blue Origin’s launch and landing site is 200km southeast of El Paso, close to the Mexican border. After the capsule separates, the rocket returns to Earth and lands upright, to be used again. The capsule, also reusable, descends under parachutes.

Is space tourism new?

Several civilians have already gone to space. In the 2000s, Russia flew eight missions to the International Space Station with wealthy private citizens, such as Dennis Tito, Charles Simonyi and Anousheh Ansari, on board. In 2004, Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie flew to the edge of space on SpaceShipOne, the first commercial vehicle to reach space and a predecessor to the spaceplane currently flown by Virgin Galactic.

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First space tourist American billionaire Dennis Tito gestures, greeting his friends and relatives as he dresses into the space suit before the launch at cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, 28 April 2001. Image Credit: EPA

In the 1980s, two members of Congress flew, Sen. Jake Garn and Rep. Bill Nelson, who was later a senator and now serves as NASA administrator. Their costs were borne by NASA.

Who else is planning to go to space?

Virgin Galactic’s 70-year-old Richard Branson also plans to ride into space aboard his own airplane-launched rocketship later this year after one more test flight over New Mexico. Virgin Galactic completed its third test flight into space with a crew two weeks ago” the company doesn’t want him climbing aboard until the craft is thoroughly proven.

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Richard Branson Image Credit: Bloomberg

Like Blue Origin, Branson’s company will send paying customers to the lower reaches of space on up-and-down flights, not Earth-orbiting rides.

Musk’s SpaceX already has transported 10 astronauts to the space station for NASA and sold several seats on private flights. Musk himself has yet to commit to going into space, though he has repeatedly said he wants to die on Mars, just not on impact.

– with inputs from Washington Post and AP