Apollo 11 Saturn V and Mobile Service Structure at pad | Source: Project Apollo Archives via Wikimedia Commons
Last Tuesday, Amazon founder and the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos literally took travel to out-of-this-world proportions when he blasted off into space with a rocket-powered spacecraft developed by his private aerospace company called Blue Origin. Joining Bezos were three other passengers that included an 18-year-old Dutch high school graduate whose father paid for the ticket ride to outer space.
Bezos and crew traveled three times the speed of sound aboard “New Shepard,” a vertical-takeoff and vertical landing suborbital rocket system named after Alan Shepard, the first American astronaut to travel into space. The flight – which reached an altitude of 66.5 miles (over 351,000 feet) above the earth and took 11 minutes that included about 3-4 minutes of zero gravity as the passengers floated weightless around the capsule – was a historic milestone in more ways than one.
Aside from the fact that it was the company’s first human space flight with no trained astronauts on board as the crew was only composed of private individuals (who officially became “astronauts” the minute they went past the “Karman Line” – the internationally recognized boundary of space), the supersonic ride showed the endless possibilities of space travel and exploration with private companies driving the surge. Nine days before the New Shepard flight, Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson, accompanied by two pilots and three employees, soared into space aboard a rocket plane known as VSS Unity but reaching a much lower height of 53 miles.
” … Bezos has been focusing his efforts on Blue Origin, whose long-term vision of “enabling a future where millions of people are living and working in space to benefit Earth”
Bezos deliberately chose July 20 to coincide with the 52nd anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing on the moon, which fascinated him as a boy. His passion for space was also influenced by his maternal grandfather, who worked on space technology and missile defense systems with the Atomic Energy Commission, with whom Bezos spent summers during his childhood. In fact, he even went on an expedition to recover parts of the Apollo Saturn V rocket engines from the depths of the Atlantic.
Not too long ago, I met Jeff Bezos at a fundraising event in the Washington Hilton where people who knew the multibillionaire well described him as a die-hard Trekkie – the term for the fans of Star Trek, an American science fiction series about a space exploration vessel. Bezos is also our neighbor at the Kalorama district in Washington, DC, where he bought three houses and combined them.
Since stepping down as CEO of Amazon, Bezos has been focusing his efforts on Blue Origin, whose long-term vision of “enabling a future where millions of people are living and working in space to benefit Earth” and the belief that “humanity will need to expand, explore, find new energy and material resources and move industries that stress Earth into space” has been largely influenced by the late Princeton University physics professor Gerard O’Neill.
O’Neill, who wanted to be an astronaut but didn’t make the cut when NASA opened up the Astronaut Corps to civilian scientists in 1966, believed in the great potential of the US space program. In a paper titled “The Colonization of Space,” published in the September 1974 issue of Physics Today, O’Neill argued that “we can colonize space and do so without robbing or harming anyone and without polluting anything. If work is begun soon, nearly all our industrial activity could be moved away from Earth’s fragile biosphere within less than a century from now.”
Space technology has indeed grown by leaps and bounds ever since President John F. Kennedy made that famous “moon speech” on Sept. 12, 1962, at Rice University in Houston, Texas. “The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space,” JFK said, making it clear that the US intends to take the lead in spaceflight.
When JFK addressed a special joint session of Congress in May 1961 asking for funds to achieve the ambitious goal of “landing a man on the moon” before the decade was out, he laid out the foundation for the Apollo program – a challenging endeavor captured in the most famous passage of his moon speech: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
” … don’t be surprised if people will soon migrate to Mars or even the moon. This may sound literally “out of this world” today, but make no mistake about it – it will happen.”
There is absolutely no doubt that the US continues to be the leader in space exploration. American billionaires like Bezos are powering the research engine on innovation and technology to progress. President Joe Biden’s decision to continue the National Space Council to assist in “generating national space policies, strategies and synchronizing America’s space activities” and address priorities such as space-related science and technologies as well as space exploration might just propel out-of-this-world ideas envisioned by Jeff Bezos – such as floating space colonies where people can live in orbit – into future reality.
With the COVID-19 pandemic and more future lethal viruses, don’t be surprised if people will soon migrate to Mars or even the moon. This may sound literally “out of this world” today, but make no mistake about it – it will happen.