Daredevils vs. entrepreneurs
By Ben Iannotta|July/August 2021
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The buzz over the upcoming flights of Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson might remind boomers like me of a certain “stunt performer,” as Wikipedia calls him, whose attempt to cross the Snake River Canyon in a rocket-propelled motorcycle failed dramatically, but not tragically, in 1974.
The atmospherics in the present buildup feel roughly reminiscent of those days, but Bezos and Branson are not exactly latter-day Evel Knievels. The long technical roads followed by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic suggest hardier preparations than those on Knievel’s Skycycle X-2, whose drogue parachute deployed early, leaving the daredevil and his vehicle tumbling to the canyon floor.
Exactly how risky will the Bezos and Branson flights be? That’s hard to judge, because, without tax dollars and American prestige at stake, the companies have not been forced to be as transparent about their engineering and testing. However, the timeline Aerospace America assembled, “Key moments in the race,” gives a sense of the work that has gone into creating New Shepard and VSS Unity and achieving confidence in the designs. As Bezos has said repeatedly in a version of an adage attributed to U.S. Navy SEALs, “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” And Branson’s Virgin Galactic has not been shy about bumping dates to the right to permit more preparations. The two might be showmen, but they are mostly businessmen.
For New Shepard, the July 20 flight will mark the 16th time the rocket and capsule combination has left the ground. That’s not many flights, given the human stakes, but one could argue that the testing over the years reflects more caution than NASA has shown at times. The first time NASA’s Space Transportation System left the ground in its entirety was with astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen aboard in 1981. The space shuttle’s successor, the expendable Space Launch System rockets, will carry a crew on the vehicle’s second launch, after a test launch scheduled for November that was preceded by static engine firings and live tests of the capsule abort rocket motors.
Maybe most significantly, the business and societal stakes of these flights are far richer than those of Knievel’s flight. These flights, whether Bezos or Branson goes first, won’t just be about ego, though one would expect these billionaires to have plenty. The path to extending our Earthly societies into space probably will be cleared by billionaires, millionaires and space tourists. Success could mean acceleration of human expansion into space.
On another level, if Bezos wins the race, that would be vindication for his strategy, which has been distinct from those of his competitors, Branson and Elon Musk of SpaceX. The New Shepard design of a capsule on top of a rocket is nothing like Branson’s rocket-propelled, runway landing VSS Unity. Also, Blue’s business model is nothing like Musk’s strategy of building confidence in SpaceX by first launching cargo, then professional astronauts and, soon, paying customers.
So, here’s hoping that, whoever goes first, they walk away like Knievel. But this time, after making history.