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Pioneering woman aviator will go to space with Jeff Bezos

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has rounded out the foursome for its first crewed suborbital spaceflight with a pioneering woman aviator: Wally Funk, one of the “Mercury 13” women who went through testing for spaceflight but never flew to space.

Funk will sit alongside Bezos and his brother Mark, plus the yet-to-be-identified beneficiary of a $28 million charity auction, when Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship lifts off from its West Texas launch pad on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

In a video posted to Instagram and YouTube, Bezos talks with the 82-year-old Funk about the flight — and Funk goes wide-eyed when the world’s richest individual asks what she’ll do when it’s finished.

“I will say, ‘Honey, that was the best thing that ever happened to me,’ and give you a hug!” Funk replies as she throws her arms around Bezos.

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Universe Today

FAA OKs Virgin Galactic’s space passenger service

Virgin Galactic says it’s received the Federal Aviation Administration’s go-ahead to fly customers on its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, marking a significant step in a commercial rollout that could also feature dueling space billionaires.

The FAA’s clearance came in the form of an update to Virgin Galactic’s five-year-old commercial space transportation operator license, the company said today in a news release. The upgrade was based on an analysis of the results from Virgin Galactic’s most recent suborbital test flight, conducted in May at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

During that flight, two test pilots guided the rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity beyond the 50-mile mark that the FAA considers the boundary of outer space. (That’s lower than the internationally accepted boundary of 100 kilometers or 62 miles, known as the Karman Line.)

“The flight performed flawlessly, and the results demonstrate the safety and elegance of our flight system,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said. “Today’s approval by the FAA of our full commercial launch license, in conjunction with the success of our May 22 test flight, give us confidence as we proceed toward our first fully crewed test flight this summer.”

Months ago, Colglazier said that four Virgin Galactic employees would join two test pilots on that flight — and that Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, would go on the test flight after that. But that was before Amazon’s billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, said he planned to ride Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceship on July 20.

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GeekWire

Leave Jeff Bezos in space? Petitions take off

Between an upsurge in antitrust talk and questions about worker turnover, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has plenty to worry about here on Earth. His plans to take a suborbital space ride next month on a rocket ship built by Blue Origin, another company he created, could conceivably add to the angst — and not just because of the regular risks of spaceflight.

Two petitions urging him to stay in space have attracted more than 100,000 signatures between them, and the tally continues to climb at a rate as rapid as a signature a second.

Both petitions were posted to Change.org two weeks ago, after Bezos said he and his brother Mark would board Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship on July 20 for an up-and-down flight from the company’s West Texas spaceport. Two yet-to-be-identified riders will join them, including the winner of a $28 million auction benefiting Blue Origin’s nonprofit foundation.

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GeekWire

Virgin Galactic downplays billionaire space race

Would Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson try to steal a march on Blue Origin (and Amazon) founder Jeff Bezos when it comes down to which billionaire flies first on their own suborbital spaceship?

There’s been some buzz about that question in the wake of this week’s announcement that Bezos will be among the first people to travel to the edge of space in Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Branson was quick to tweet his congratulations when Bezos’ plans came to light, but also told followers to “watch this space.”

And today, Parabolic Arc’s Doug Messier — who’s long reported on Virgin Galactic’s ups and downs from its home base in Mojave, Calif. — quoted an unnamed source as saying that the company was working on a plan to put Branson aboard its VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket plane for a trip beyond 50 miles in altitude over the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

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GeekWire

Jeff Bezos will be on Blue Origin’s first space crew

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos says he and his brother Mark will fly to space next month on the first crewed flight of his space venture’s suborbital spaceship.

“Ever since I was five years old, I’ve dreamed of traveling to space,” Bezos wrote today in an Instagram post. “On July 20th, I will take that journey with my brother. The greatest adventure, with my best friend.”

The surprise announcement comes even as Blue Origin, the space company Bezos founded 21 years ago, is auctioning off one of the six seats on next month’s flight. The high bid currently stands at $3.2 million, and the final price is due to be set at a live online bidding round on June 12.

Blue Origin says it’s received bids from nearly 6,000 participants from 143 countries. The proceeds from the winning bid will be donated to Blue Origin’s educational foundation, the Club for the Future.

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GeekWire

‘Bezos Bailout’? Lunar lander battle gets political

The tussle over NASA funding for lunar landing systems has touched down in the Senate — with one leading senator seeking additional funding that could go to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, and another leading senator arguing against a “Bezos Bailout.”

The senator on the pro-funding side is Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Her amendment to the Endless Frontier Act could put Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin and its space industry partners back in the running for billions of dollars of NASA support for their human landing system.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., is on the anti-funding side: This week, he submitted an amendment that would “eliminate the multi-billion dollar Bezos Bailout.”

This all has to do with NASA’s decision last month to award a $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX for a Starship lunar lander that’s designed to carry astronauts to the lunar surface for the space agency’s Artemis program, as early as 2024.

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GeekWire

New book details Jeff Bezos’ SpaceX envy

When it comes to his Blue Origin space venture, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos likes to say “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” But a new book claims Bezos was so concerned about the slow pace of progress five years ago that Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, was asked about becoming Blue Origin’s CEO.

Shotwell — who is second only to billionaire CEO Elon Musk at SpaceX — quickly rebuffed the entreaty, saying that “it wouldn’t look right,” according to tech journalist Brad Stone’s account in “Amazon Unbound.” That’s just one of the eye-openers from just one of the book’s chapters — the one that’s devoted to Blue Origin, which was founded by Bezos as a privately held company in 2000.

“Amazon Unbound” follows up on Stone’s 2013 book about Bezos and Amazon, “The Everything Store.” The earlier book touched upon Blue Origin’s genesis in Bezos’ childhood space dreams — and quoted a high-school girlfriend of his as saying Bezos founded Amazon solely to earn the money needed for his space venture.

“I can neither confirm nor deny that,” Bezos told me jokingly in the spring of 2016.

Stone’s new book suggests that just six months after that interview, Bezos was in no joking mood. Citing interviews with people who were familiar with Blue Origin’s workings, Stone writes that Bezos called in a succession of executives during several weeks in the fall of 2016 to discuss the space venture’s progress, or lack thereof.

The book depicts Bezos as frustrated with expenses that were bigger than he expected — and results that were coming more slowly than expected. In Stone’s telling, Blue Origin’s longtime president, Rob Meyerson, was caught in the middle: charged with following through on Bezos’ emailed instructions, but resented by demoralized members of his team.

Bezos’ dissatisfaction was fueled in part by the success of SpaceX and its billionaire CEO, Elon Musk. While most of Blue Origin’s funding came directly from Bezos, SpaceX hustled to raise outside capital — including $1 billion from Google and Fidelity — and successfully snagged multibillion-dollar contracts from NASA. SpaceX was hopping ahead like the hare in Aesop’s Fables, while Blue Origin seemed to be plodding along like the tortoise. (And in fact, tortoises are part of Blue Origin’s coat of arms.)

There was a personal element to the rivalry. “Musk and Bezos were a lot alike — relentless, competitive, and absorbed with their self-images. But Musk eagerly sought the spotlight and cultivated a kind of cultlike adoration at his companies and among his fans. … Bezos, on the other hand, was more guarded,” Stone writes.

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GeekWire

Elon Musk taunts Jeff Bezos over lunar lander protest

The billionaire space battle just got kicked up a notch, with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture challenging NASA’s award of a $2.9 billion lunar lander contract to SpaceX — and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk replying with a double entendre.

The contretemps in commercial space began on April 26 when Blue Origin sent the Government Accountability Office a 50-page filing (plus more than 100 pages’ worth of attachments) claiming that NASA improperly favored SpaceX in the deliberations that led to this month’s single-source award.

A team led by Blue Origin — with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper as partners — had competed for a share of NASA funding to develop a system capable of landing astronauts on the moon in the mid-2020s. Alabama-based Dynetics was also in the competitiion, and has also filed a protest with the GAO.

Both protests contend that NASA was wrong to make only one contract award, despite Congress’ less-than-expected support levels, due to the importance of promoting competition in the lunar lander market. Both protests also contest many of the claims NASA made in a document explaining its selection process. For example, Blue Origin says NASA erroneously determined that it was seeking advance payments for development work.

Although both protests delve deeply into the details of procurement, Blue Origin’s challenge has an added twist of personal rivalry.

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GeekWire

Will space become Jeff Bezos’ final frontier?

What will Amazon without Jeff Bezos as CEO look like? It could look a lot like Bezos’ biggest personal passion project — Blue Origin, which is working to send people and payloads on space trips ranging from suborbital hops to the moon and beyond.

There’s already speculation that Bezos’ decision to step back from the CEO role and serve as Amazon’s executive chairman will free him up to devote more time to Blue Origin. After all, he’s basically come around to admitting that he founded Amazon in part to earn the billions he’d need for his own space effort.

But Bezos has picked up a lot of other passions since his days in Princeton, when he headed the local chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.

That’s reflected in the email he sent to Amazon employees, announcing a tectonic shift for the world’s richest individual (at least as of today … sorry, Elon Musk).

“As Exec Chair I will stay engaged in important Amazon initiatives but also have the time and energy I need to focus on the Day 1 Fund, the Bezos Earth Fund, Blue Origin, The Washington Post, and my other passions,” Bezos wrote. “I’ve never had more energy, and this isn’t about retiring. I’m super passionate about the impact I think these organizations can have.”

The order in which Bezos lays out his list may well reflect the priority of his passions, especially considering that he’s a seasoned list-maker.

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GeekWire

Jeff Bezos kicks back with a fiery rocket engine test

If you’re hanging out in West Texas during a pandemic, there are few fireworks shows more thrilling than a test firing of your very own rocket engine. At least that’s the way Blue Origin’s billionaire founder sees it.

“Perfect night,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who created the Blue Origin space venture more than two decades ago, wrote in an Instagram post. “Sitting in the back of my pickup truck under the moon and stars, watching another long-duration, full-thrust hot-fire test of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine.”

The post featured a shot of Bezos and other spectators looking on at the rising rocket plume from afar, as well as a video with closer perspectives of the firing.