Risk-taking of Jeff Bezos spills over from business to real life as he heads to space this month

Though suborbital flights are less risky than orbital missions, there is no guarantee of absolute safety. In 2014, one of Virgin Galactic's suborbital space planes broke apart, killing a pilot

Jeff Bezos (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
Jeff Bezos (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)

V Venkateswara Rao

Along with his brother Mark and an auction winner whose identity remains unknown (bidding win at $28 million), Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is headed for space this month. A fourth, as yet unnamed, space tourist will also travel on board the first crewed spaceflight of the billionaire's company Blue Origin on July 20.

Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin is in a fierce competition in the field of private space exploration with Elon Musk's SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson.

Scheduled to take off from a desert in western Texas, the New Shepard flight will last 11 minutes. The four passengers will spend time above the Karman line more than 62 miles above Earth, that marks the recognized boundary between Earth's atmosphere and space - that is, to fly to the edge of space and back.

Blue Origin's New Shepard has successfully carried out more than a dozen un-crewed test flights from its facility in Texas' Guadalupe Mountains.

Suborbital flights differ greatly from orbital flights of the type most of us think of when we think of spaceflight. When most people think about spaceflight, they think about an astronaut circling the Earth, floating in space, for at least a few days. But Bezos and his co-passengers would be going up and coming right back down, and they'll be doing it in less than 11 minutes.

Jeff Bezos, who stepped down earlier this year as Amazon's CEO to spend more time on other pet projects including Blue Origin, has said it was his lifelong dream to fly into space. Bezos can have anything on earth with his enormous wealth. But he seems ready to risk it all for a 11-minute ride to space, or rather to the edge of space.

Though the risks are not necessarily astronomical for Bezos' jaunt to the edge of space, as his space company Blue Origin has spent the better part of the last decade running the suborbital un-crewed test flights, it is not entirely without risk either.

Orbital rockets need enough power to hit at least 17,000 miles per hour, or what's known as orbital velocity, essentially giving a spacecraft enough energy in order not to be dragged back by the Earth's gravity.

Suborbital flights require far less power and speed. That means less time the rocket is required to burn and lower temperatures scorching the outside of the spacecraft, which means fewer chances for something to go very wrong.

New Shephard's suborbital flights hit about three times the speed of sound - roughly 2,300 miles per hour - and the crew capsule will separate from the rocket at the top of the earth's trajectory and briefly continue upward before the capsule almost hovers at the top of its flight path, giving the passengers a few minutes of weightlessness and a space view of the Earth.

The New Shepard capsule then deploys a large plume of parachutes to slow its descent to less than 20 miles per hour before it hits the ground.

But that doesn't mean the risk is zero for the suborbital flights. With an orbital re-entry, a spacecraft's external temperatures can reach up to about 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

Bezos will be travelling up to 350,000 feet above Earth. But the capsule he travels in will be pressurized, so he doesn't need a special suit to keep him safe. The spacecraft is also equipped with an abort system designed to jettison the New Shepard capsule and passengers away from the rocket in case of an emergency.

Even though suborbital flights are less risky than orbital missions, there is no way to guarantee absolute safety. Even small errors can have big consequences. To illustrate any such unforeseen errors being committed, one of Virgin Galactic's suborbital space planes broke apart in 2014 when one of the vehicle's co-pilots prematurely deployed the feathering system designed to keep the craft stable as it made its descent. The added drag on the plane ripped it to pieces, killing one of the pilots.

Blue Origin has successfully run 15 test flights and Jeff Bezos is shrewd enough to know the risks. But as an old adage goes - space is hard.

As A.D. Aliwat, a rising star at one of the world's preeminent investment banks, quipped in his outrageous, satirical bildungsroman novel ‘ALPHA’, “Being a rocket scientist isn’t all that smart when you could work in finance”.

(V Venkateswara Rao is an alumnus of IIM, Ahmedabad and a retired corporate professional)

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