When it comes to creating a market in bragging rights for the superrich it’s hard to beat Jeff Bezos. After all, as the world’s self-made richest dude, he should understand the species and its appetites.
So how about setting a price for the most thrills you can have sitting in a seat for 10 minutes?
That’s basically what Bezos is doing by auctioning off a ride on his Blue Origin rocket next month to the highest bidder. Right now the price is nudging $3m. That makes it $300,000 a minute, which is probably the most expensive form of travel yet devised.
The literally skyrocketing price has been driven by more than 5,200 bidders from 136 different countries, a number that must include not only every enclave of the superrich but probably a number of kleptocracies, too.
Mind you, if you’re imagining the prize being snatched by a caricature plutocrat carrying the bodily residue of years of foie gras and having lungs coated with the flavor of fine Cuban cigars, that just won’t cut it.
They must fit a body mass profile ranging from a height of five feet weighing 110 pounds to a maximum height of six four weighing 223 pounds.
They must also be able to climb a launch tower ladder equal to seven flights of stairs in under 90 seconds, lie prone in a seat for as long as 90 minutes (allowing for a launch delay) without access to a bathroom, not to mention feeling five and a half times as heavy as normal for a few seconds during re-entry.
So this already describes a self-selecting group defined not only by their wealth but by their physical and mental fitness. The closest equivalent might be those deemed able to climb Everest—but that particular thrill has long passed from being a singular feat of endurance to being an ill-regulated and shambolic tour operation.
The winner of the auction will join the first manned flight of the six-seat capsule that sits atop the New Shepard booster rocket. (The company is not saying whether all six seats will be filled, or if Bezos himself will be aboard.)
For Bezos this will further advance his status as master innovator by inaugurating the so-called space tourism business—thereby snatching the prize from Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, a project that, after missing every promised deadline, remains far short of delivering.
After making 15 test flights Blue Origin has proved that it can dependably deliver the baseline standard to qualify as a sub-orbital flight—by surpassing the altitude of 62 miles, named the Karman Line, accepted as the threshold of space.
There is certainly a striking difference in the operational styles and branding of Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. Branson operates from a grandiose set-up named Spaceport America, near Las Cruces in New Mexico, which cost the state more than $200m to build. Bezos has quietly built a base in a remote part of the West Texas desert, near the small town of Van Horn. It’s all very utilitarian, not much more than a standard NASA-style launch pad.
On that pad, linked umbilically to a gantry, sits the New Shepard rocket, named for Alan Shepard, the first American astronaut to reach space. It’s 59 feet high—that explains the need to be fit enough to climb seven stories to where the capsule sits.
The system that shapes the rocket ride follows the principle created by NASA to enable astronauts to survive if the first stage booster rocket exploded either on the launch pad or during its ascent. The capsule blasts into a trajectory clear of the rocket and then descends on parachutes. (It was never needed).
This gives Blue Origin a safety backup that Galactic lacks: an inherent emergency escape system for passengers in the event of a rocket failure. In a normal flight the capsule separates from the booster as the rocket power dies, nearing the apogee, and the passengers get three minutes in space in which they can unbuckle from their seats and enjoy weightlessness.
The capsule then descends and re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, when, for a few seconds, passengers, once more strapped in, are subjected to a pressure of 5.5G—five and a half times the force of gravity. After that, the capsule, suspended under three parachutes, falls at about 20mph until a blast of air cushions the touchdown at 1 mph.
Everybody then remains seated in the capsule in the desert, not far from the launch pad, until Blue Origin ground crew arrive and open the hatch. In terms of ground covered, the voyage is very short; in terms of vertical travel it will have no equal in its visceral effects and the views offered from the large windows.
The New Shepard rocket, meanwhile, descends separately and returns to the launch pad, able to be used multiple times, using the same technology as Elon Musk’s re-usable Space-X boosters—although they actually send astronauts into space.
All of this raises the issue of crossing another threshold, other than reaching space: the bullshit threshold. It begins with the nomenclature. Blue Origin calls its passengers astronauts. But they are entirely passive. No pressure suits are needed, just a one-piece zip-up flight suit. The system is robotic. There is no pilot on board.
No skills remotely approaching those of a real astronaut are required. Once a passenger arrives at the site they come under the care of a team each of whom goes under the moniker of Crew Member Seven—they don’t take the ride, they teach, train and guide the clients on the ground and then retrieve them from the capsule after touchdown.
So, too much hyperbole. Rewarding a joy rider with the title of astronaut debases the value of the title.
Indeed, when I put this view to a real NASA astronaut, Andy Thomas, his response was suitably ballistic:
“They are passengers, not astronauts. Nothing more, nothing less. The title astronaut carries a lot more with it, and denotes a profession. Every professional astronaut should be outraged that Bezos and Branson are stealing the title because it will sell seats. I am a little surprised the astronaut community has not been more outspoken on this. They have even usurped the NASA astronaut logo to give to their passengers.”
(Thomas has spent 177 days in space, including on four Space Shuttle flights and a spell living on the Russian Mir space station. His wife is Shannon Walker, another astronaut, who recently returned from five months on the International Space Station.)
And then there is the issue of what space tourism really is. And let’s be clear. At this stage there isn’t really much real space travel involved, and even less tourism.
When the category was devised, at the time of Virgin Galactic’s birth in 2004, nobody seemed aware of the irony of using the term tourism. And yet it flew in the face of one of the underlying vanities of the travel business, that the market is divided between two basic classes of people, tourists and travelers, and that tourists are a low rent mob, not the uber-rich.
This idea was originally articulated by one of the world’s greatest snobs, Evelyn Waugh. Before he was established as a great novelist and satirist, the young Waugh was a travel writer with attitude who declared: “Every Englishman abroad, until it is proved to the contrary, likes to consider himself a traveller and not a tourist.”
That was in 1930, when mass tourism did not exist. Flying was a luxury few could afford (and was reckoned to be 33 times more dangerous than taking the train.) But Waugh’s definition has long since been established as a commercially successful prejudice. The traveler does not move in the pack. The traveler is far more discerning, more cultured, more intellectually curious and, usually, a lot richer.
As it happens, part of the case made for the rocket rides implies the sensibility of a traveler—that they elevate our view of the planet, that once you get up there and see the curvature of the Earth you might begin to better comprehend both its beauty and fragility. Or, depending on your psyche, you might simply exult in feeling like a true master of the universe for a few minutes, spurting out a flood of selfies and videos to prove it.
It seems that the lust to ride the rocket is just one sign that post-pandemic travel will see a greater appetite among the rich for trophy experiences. Blue Origin isn’t saying yet what the regular price of a seat will be, or how frequent the flights will be—“stay tuned” was all they would say to me. Bezos has said they will be competitive with Galactic, who quote $250,000—but that is for a flight that, if it ever happens, will last for around an hour and 10 minutes, not just 10 minutes.
In any event, for those looking for something less daring and equal in travel bragging rights there is a new temptation: a Chinese outfit named Deerjet has taken the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and turned the cabin into something resembling a penthouse suite. There are 18 business class seats and a master bedroom. The jet can fly nonstop from New York to Hong Kong, and you can charter a flight for a mere $74,000 an hour.
It says something that it’s the Chinese who are pushing such a wet dream: however egalitarian a political system is supposed to be, hedonism will always get the better of it—at least, for a few.