The answer is not what you might expect. Space travel is historically fraught with danger. While the risks aren’t necessarily astronomical for Bezos’ escape into the cosmos, his space company Blue Origin has spent most of the last decade operating the New Shepard suborbital rocket on which he will drive through a series of successful test flights. (Plus, being in space is Bezos’ lifelong dream.)
Still, what Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, and the winner of an online auction will do – perform New Shepard’s first-ever crewed flight, a fully autonomous suborbital rocket and a spaceship system designed to take holders away. of tickets on a brief joyful space travel – is not entirely without risk.
Here’s what Bezos’ flight will look like, and how well people are taking charge of their lives when they fly to space these days.
What does the flight look like
When most people think of spaceflight, they think of an astronaut circling the earth, floating in space, for at least a few days.
This is not what the Bezos brothers and their traveling companions will do.
They’ll go up and down, and they’ll do it in less time – around 11 minutes – than most people need to get to work.
Suborbital flights are very different from orbital flights of the type most of us think of when we think of space flights. Blue Origin’s New Shepard flights will be brief trips up and down, although they will go over 100 km above Earth, which is widely considered to be the edge of outer space.
Orbital rockets need to generate enough power to reach at least 17,000 miles per hour, or what’s known as orbital speed, essentially giving a spacecraft enough energy to keep spinning around Earth instead. than being immediately drawn into by gravity.
Suborbital flights require much less power and speed. This means less time the rocket is needed to burn, lower temperatures scorching the exterior of the spacecraft, less force and compression tearing the spacecraft, and generally less chance of something going wrong.
New Shepard’s suborbital fights reach about three times the speed of sound – about 2,300 miles per hour – and fly straight upward until the rocket spends most of its fuel. The crew capsule will then separate from the rocket at the top of the flight path and continue upward briefly before the capsule hovers almost at the top of its flight path, giving passengers a few minutes of weightlessness. It works much like an extended version of the weightlessness you feel when you reach the top of a roller coaster hill, just before gravity brings your cart – or, in Bezos’ case, your space capsule. – shouting to the ground.
The New Shepard capsule then deploys a large plume of parachutes to slow its descent to less than 20 miles per hour before touching the ground.
The rocket, flying separately, reignites its engines and uses its on-board computers to perform an accurate vertical landing. The booster landing looks like what SpaceX does with its Falcon 9 rockets, although those rockets are much more powerful than New Shepard and – yes – more likely to explode on impact.
How big are the risks?
Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule, which is fully autonomous and does not require a pilot, has never had an explosive accident in 15 test flights. And the nature of Bezos’ flight means it carries inherently lower risks than more ambitious attempts at space travel. But that doesn’t mean the risk is zero either.
Because suborbital flights do not require as much speed or the intense process of trying to enter Earth’s atmosphere at incredible speeds, they are considered to be much less risky than orbital flights. With orbital reentry, a spacecraft’s exterior temperatures can reach up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit, and astronauts can feel a 4.5 G force that is also being applied to the spacecraft, while thickening around it. of the capsule.
High speeds and high altitudes have inherent risks, and even small mistakes can have big consequences. Earth’s atmosphere is generally not considered survivable for a significant period of time above altitudes of 50,000 feet without a space suit, and Bezos will travel up to 350,000 feet. But the capsule he is traveling in will be pressurized, so he does not need a special suit to ensure his safety, and he will have access to an oxygen mask if the cabin loses pressure. The spacecraft is also equipped with an abandonment system designed to drop the New Shepard capsule and passengers away from the rocket in an emergency. There are also emergency safety features to help the capsule land smoothly even if a few of its parachutes do not deploy.
But even still, there is no way to absolutely guarantee safety in the event of New Shepard malfunction.
Even though suborbital flights are less risky than orbital missions, they can still be fatal.
One of Virgin Galactic’s suborbital space planes, for example, crashed in 2014 when one of the vehicle’s co-pilots prematurely deployed the feathering system designed to keep the craft stable during its descent. The additional drag on the plane tore it to pieces, killing one of the pilots.
(Blue Origin competitor Virgin Galactic has since completed three successful test flights of a revamped version of its SpaceShipTwo spaceplane.)
Blue Origin did not encounter any similar tragic accidents during its testing phase, although – as an old industry saying goes – space is difficult.
But, Bezos said, the risk is well worth it.