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Nation & World

Jeff Bezos' Space Trek Could Usher In New Era Of Space Tourism

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Billionaire Jeff Bezos announced that he will be going to space. Bezos, who made his fortune starting Amazon, is also the owner of a commercial spaceflight company. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports that the trip will be short but significant. And we should note that Amazon is a financial supporter of NPR.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: In an Instagram post with soaring music, Bezos said that flying into space was the culmination of a lifelong dream.

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JEFF BEZOS: It's a thing I've wanted to do all my life. It's an adventure. It's a big deal for me.

BRUMFIEL: This flight will be what's called suborbital, meaning that Bezos will experience just a few minutes of weightlessness before falling back to Earth. Does that really count?

LAURA FORCZYK: Well, it depends on your definition of space.

BRUMFIEL: Laura Forczyk is the owner of Astralytical, a space consulting firm.

FORCZYK: People who go above 100 kilometers are generally seen by the international community as having gone to space, but some people consider one orbit necessary to go to space.

BRUMFIEL: Bezos will put a toe across the official 100 kilometer line aboard his spacecraft called New Shepard. It's a bell-like capsule with enormous windows that can seat six. Unlike other spaceships, New Shepard's 10-minute flight is fully automated. No pilot is required. Although it hasn't flown with people aboard just yet, its safety record so far is very good, says Forczyk. It experienced a problem on its very first flight.

FORCZYK: But ever since then, it has gone very smoothly.

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ARIANE CORNELL: And touchdown.

PATRICK ZEITOUNI: That was beautiful.

CORNELL: Absolutely spectacular - a beautiful launch and landing for both the crew capsule and the booster.

BRUMFIEL: The latest test flight in Texas was the 15th successful mission. Forczyk says Bezos clearly thinks it's ready for humans.

FORCZYK: I think that it's a real vote of confidence that Jeff Bezos, one of the richest men in the world, and presumably his insurer have allowed him to be on this first flight.

BRUMFIEL: Bezos will also bring along his brother. Another seat is being sold to the highest bidder in an online auction. The flight scheduled for next month will be a big milestone for space tourism, which has been going on for decades in fits and starts. Later this year, SpaceX, a rival to Bezos' company, says it will take tourists all the way into orbit for a few days. But Forczyk says if you're thinking this is going to mean you get to go to space soon, well, don't get your hopes up.

FORCZYK: It's going to be some time before you and I can purchase a flight unless you or I, which I am not, is ultrawealthy.

BRUMFIEL: The ticket for that other seat next to Bezos is currently selling for well over $3 million, and there's still days left to go in the auction.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.