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Jeff Bezos needs to be in place for 11 minutes. Here’s how risky it is



The answer is not what you would expect. Space travel is historically fraught with danger. Although the risk is not necessarily astronomical for Bezos’ excursion into the cosmos, as his space company Blue Origin has spent the better part of the last decade driving the suborbital New Shepard rocket he runs on through a series of successful test flights. (Being in space is also Bezos’ lifelong dream.)

Still what Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos and the winner of an online auction will do – go on the very first manned flight of New Shepard, a fully autonomous suborbital rocket and spacecraft system designed to take ticket holders with short pleasure driving to space ̵
1; is not entirely without risk.

Here’s what Bezos’ flight will look like and to what extent people take their lives in their hands when they go to outer space these days.

What the plane looks like

When most people think of space travel, they think of an astronaut orbiting the Earth and floating in space for at least a few days.

That’s not what the Bezos brothers and their fellow passengers want to do.

They come up and come straight down again, and they do it in less time – approx. 11 minutes – than it takes most people to get to work.

Suborbital flights are very different from orbital flights of the type that most of us think of when we think of space travel. Blue Origin’s New Shepard flights will be short, up-and-down flights, though they will travel more than 100 km above the ground, which is widely considered to be the edge of outer space.

Jeff Bezos is about to enter space on the first manned rocket flight
Orbital rockets must drum up enough power to hit at least 17,000 miles per hour, or what is known as orbital velocity, which essentially gives a spacecraft enough energy to continue whipping around the earth instead of being pulled immediately back by gravity.

Suborbital flights require far less power and speed. This means less time required for the rocket to fire, lower temperatures burning out of the spacecraft, less force and compression tearing at the spacecraft and generally fewer opportunities for something to go very wrong.

New Shepard’s suborbital fights hit about three times the speed of sound – about 2,300 miles per hour – and fly straight up until the rocket uses most of its fuel. The crew capsule then separates from the rocket at the top of the runway and continues briefly upwards before the capsule almost floats on top of its flight path, giving passengers a few minutes of weightlessness. It acts as an extended version of the weightlessness you experience when you reach the top of a roller coaster height, just before gravity brings your carriage – or, in Bezos’ case, your space capsule – screaming back to the ground.
A graphic showing the flight profile of Blue Origin's New Shepard.

The New Shepard capsule then uses a large parachute to slow the descent to less than 20 miles per hour before hitting the ground.

The rocket, which flies separately, re-ignites its engines and uses its built-in computers to perform a precise, vertical landing. The booster landing is similar to what SpaceX does with its Falcon 9 rockets, though these rockets are far more powerful than New Shepard and – yes – more likely to explode on impact.

How big are the risks?

Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin for auction ticket for the first space flight

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 has some inherently lower risks than more ambitious space travel experiments. But that does not mean the risk is zero either.

Because suborbital flights do not require as much speed or the intense process of trying to get back to Earth’s atmosphere at incredible speeds, they are considered much less risky than orbital flights. With an orbital re-entry, the spacecraft’s outside temperatures can reach 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit, and astronauts can experience 4.5 Gs of force also placed on the spacecraft, all while the ever-thicker atmosphere whips around the capsule.
High speeds and high altitudes pose inherent risks, and even small errors can have major consequences. Earth’s atmosphere is generally not considered to survive for significant amounts 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 travels in will be under pressure, so he does not need a special suit to keep him safe, and he will have access to an oxygen mask if the cabin loses pressure. The spacecraft is also equipped with an interruption system designed to jet the New Shepard capsule and passengers away from the rocket in the event of an emergency. There are also backup features that help the capsule land gently, even if a couple of its parachutes are not implemented.
Jeff Bezos tested communications systems before the first flight with the New Shepard spacecraft in 2015.

Yet there is no way to guarantee safety absolutely if New Shepard is malfunctioning.

Although suborbital flights are less risky than orbital missions, they can still be deadly.

One of Virgin Galactic’s suborbital spacecraft, for example, broke apart in 2014 when one of the vehicle’s co – pilots prematurely deployed the spring system designed to keep the vessel stable as it made its descent. The extra drag on the plane tore it to pieces and killed one of the pilots.

(Blue Origin competitor Virgin Galactic has since had three successful test flights of a modernized version of its SpaceShipTwo spacecraft.)

Blue Origin has not encountered similar tragic accidents during its testing phase, although the space – as an old saying from the industry – is tough.

However, Bezos has suggested that the risk is worth it.


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