The suborbital spaceships built by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceline may look totally different, but financially speaking, they have something in common: They both have connections to Seattle tech billionaires.
The connection is obvious in the case of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket ship. Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, about six years after he founded Seattle-based Amazon — and he has said he sells off a billion dollars in Amazon stock annually to fund his privately held space company.
Today the Federal Aviation Administration said it has issued its formal approval for New Shepard’s launch on July 20 from Blue Origin’s West Texas spaceport, with Bezos and three crewmates seated on board. It’ll be the first crewed mission for the suborbital craft, which has been put through 15 uncrewed test flights over the course of more than five years.
Bezos’ trip is due to take place just days after Branson took a ride on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, known as VSS Unity. Both trips are meant to blaze a trail for tourists and researchers to get a sample of the space environment, including a few minutes of zero gravity and wide-angle views of the curving Earth beneath the black sky of space.
Blue Origin’s headquarters has been in the Seattle area from the company’s inception. But Virgin Galactic, which is headquartered in New Mexico, has a less obvious connection to the Seattle tech community.
VSS Unity, the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane that took Branson and five crewmates beyond the 50-mile space milestone on Sunday, traces its technological roots to the SpaceShipOne rocket plane that was developed with a $28 million investment from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
Allen, who passed away in 2018, said in his autobiography that he eventually came out ahead in the deal — thanks to the $10 million Ansari X Prize that was won by SpaceShipOne’s privately backed spaceflights in 2004, plus the licensing fees paid by Virgin Galactic and the tax break Allen received from donating the rocket plane to the Smithsonian in 2005.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo flights should be counted among the returns on Allen’s investment, according to Ed Lazowska, a professor at the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering.
In an email sent just hours after Branson’s flight, Lazowska said VSS Unity is a “direct descendant” of SpaceShipOne.
“Both were designed by Burt Rutan, with Unity employing the ‘shuttlecock’ atmospheric re-entry system pioneered by SpaceShipOne,” he said. “And the launch approach is the same, with the spacecraft carried aloft by a huge mothership.”
Both motherships nestled their rocket planes beneath wide-spreading wings. SpaceShipOne’s mothership was known as WhiteKnightOne, while the mothership for VSS Unity was christened VMS Eve in honor of Richard Branson’s mother.
Rutan’s SpaceShipOne concept had to be scaled up significantly for SpaceShipTwo, and that’s why it’s taken 17 years for Virgin Galactic to bring the concept to the verge of commercialization.
SpaceShipOne was designed to carry a single pilot, plus enough dead weight to substitute for two passengers.
“Paul’s specific goal was to capture the X Prize, and the system was designed for that specific task,” Lazowska said. “I remember emailing Paul, asking about the fact that the astronauts did not wear pressure suits. He explained that the X Prize specification required such a small period of time at apogee that it was possible to pressurize the spacecraft from the mothership, ‘stick a cork in it’ and avoid the weight of a pressurization system and spacesuits.”
Weight turned out to be a limiting factor for the development of SpaceShipTwo. Virgin Galactic started out with a design that would accommodate six passengers plus two pilots for a flight reaching SpaceShipOne’s target altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles). But in the process of turning the design into reality, Virgin Galactic trimmed back the seating capacity to two pilots plus four in the passenger cabin, and went with a 50-mile target.
Safety was another bugaboo: Three of the workers involved in developing SpaceShipTwo died in 2007 when a tank of nitrous oxide exploded at Scaled Composites’ test site in Mojave, Calif. Then, in 2014, one test pilot died and the other was seriously injured when the first SpaceShipTwo craft, VSS Enterprise, broke up during a test flight. The accident, and the investigation that followed, led to changes in the rocket plane’s design as well as pilot training procedures.
After years of testing, Virgin Galactic’s pilots successfully flew VSS Unity beyond the 50-mile mark at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port in 2018 and 2019, and did it again in May after the company moved its base of operations to Spaceport America in New Mexico. The string of successful flight tests should set the stage for paying passengers to step on board starting next year.
Paul Allen continued investing in spaceflight long after SpaceShipOne’s retirement: In 2011, he founded a space company called Stratolaunch, which built the world’s largest airplane to serve as a flying launch pad for rocket-propelled vehicles. Like Virgin Galactic, Stratolaunch uses a scaled-up version of the SpaceShipOne concept.
Stratolaunch’s mammoth plane was put through its first flight test in Mojave in April 2019, just months after Allen’s death, and the second flight test took place this April — under new management.
Although the Allen family’s holding company, Vulcan Inc., is no longer directly involved in the ventures spawned by SpaceShipOne, Richard Branson sounded as if he was channeling Paul Allen when he told an interviewer, “I promise I will do everything I can to protect the species on this beautiful Earth.”
Lazowska said that Allen considered that feeling of protectiveness toward Earth, known as the Overview Effect, to be one of the biggest payoffs to be gained from investing in spaceflight. “He explained to me that NASA astronauts returned from space with a new appreciation for the importance of stewardship of planet Earth, but without the resources to do much about it,” Lazowska recalled. “If wealthy, influential individuals could have the same experience, he felt, it could be transformational for the planet’s future.”
Bezos, too, has talked about how investments in space could pay dividends on our home planet. “Earth can eventually be zoned residential and light industry, and we can move all of our heavy industry off-planet, where it belongs,” he told me in 2016.
Lazowska said the connection between the aspirations of today’s space billionaires and Paul Allen’s vision for commercial spaceflight should be obvious.
“Anyone who looks at photos of Unity next to SpaceShipOne, or of Eve next to White Knight, will immediately see that today we witnessed the fulfillment of Paul’s amazing vision,” he said.
Blue Origin plans to stream live coverage of the New Shepard rocket ship’s first crewed spaceflight, with Jeff Bezos on board, starting at 4:30 a.m. PT July 20 via its website. Liftoff is set for 6 a.m. PT, but technical issues or weather concerns could delay launch.
The picture of SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnightOne, taken in 2005 by Michael Pereckas, is used here under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. The original image, as posted to Flickr, has been cropped.