As Branson and Bezos prepare to take off, what’s next for space tourism? – Technical news briefing
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Zoe Thomas: This is your technical briefing for Friday July 9th. I’m Zoe Thomas for the Wall Street Journal. Reaching for the stars. This weekend, British billionaire Richard Branson is hoping to fly to space on a flight with his company Virgin Galactic. He will live a few minutes in weightlessness before coming back down to earth. Just over a week later, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos plans to board his own spaceship for a short trip with his company Blue Origin. People and their businesses are seeking to assert themselves as leaders in the space tourism industry. So what does their travel mean for this booming sector? And when will the rest of us have the chance to go to space? Journalist Micah Maidenberg, who covers space affairs for the Wall Street Journal, joins us for a chat. It’s after those headlines. No more movement in the streaming wars. Streaming services are added to their offer in the face of growing competition. Netflix has signed an exclusive multi-year deal with Shonda Rhimes, the producer behind the hit Bridgerton. Rhimes and his production company Shondaland extend their relationship with Netflix beyond television, into movies, games, merchandise, virtual reality, and live events. Also adding to its streaming line, Amazon. The company signed an agreement with Universal Pictures to stream studio films on its Prime and IMDb TV services. New releases of Universal will run on the company’s sister streaming service, Peacock, for four months before streaming on Prime. The global car manufacturing giant, Stellantis, is betting on electric vehicles. It plans to spend more than $ 35 billion to expand its range of electric vehicles in the coming years. The company formed earlier this year by the merger of Fiat Chrysler and French group PSA, plans to launch electrified options under its 14 brands, including Jeep, Ram and Peugeot. It also plans to set up five battery factories in Europe and North America. And the grocery delivery startup, Instacart, is under new management. He appointed Facebook veteran Fiji Simo as the new chief executive. Simo has spent the past decade leading Facebook’s mobile and product teams. His appointment comes as Instacart looks to expand its business and go public after a record year of growth during the pandemic. The current CEO and co-founder of Instacart, Apoorva Mehta, will become executive chairman from next month. OK. Coming up, space tourism is about to take off. What will this mean for the cosmic dreams of humanity? We will discuss after the break. This Sunday, in the absence of meteorological or technical problems, Richard Branson will join the first space flight with a full crew for the company of his Virgin Galactic. He announced the planned theft in a video released earlier this month.
Richard Branson: I have always been a dreamer. My mom taught me to never give up and to aim for the stars. In July, our dream will come true.
Zoe Thomas: But Branson isn’t the only billionaire to hit space this month. Nine days later, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is about to join the first crewed mission of New Shepard, the reusable rocket built by his company Blue Origin. In announcing his trip, Bezos also posted a video explaining what the flight would mean to him.
Jeff Bezos: I want to take this flight because it’s the thing I’ve wanted to do all my life. It’s an adventure. This is a big problem for me.
Zoe Thomas: So beyond letting two billionaires live their dreams, the launch of these flights and the developments made by the two companies behind them could have real implications for the future of space travel and space tourism. Our journalist, Micah Maidenberg, who covers the world of space, joins us in discussing it. So Micah, we have two space flights from two different companies with two different approaches to getting there. Virgin Galactic’s space flight is scheduled for Sunday, so let’s start with them. How does their spaceship work?
Micah Maidenberg: So Virgin Galactic goes into space, in a sense it’s a two-part method. The company has a custom-built, high-flying aircraft to which it attaches its spacecraft. The plane flies up to about 45,000 feet, at which time the craft releases and launches rockets into space. Virgin Galactic said on their last flight that they reached just over 55 miles above Earth. And then after having spent a little bit of time, a few minutes, at this altitude, the machine sort of comes back to earth, a bit like a badminton shuttlecock feathers itself when it loses altitude. And then finally, the craft somehow slides for a landing.
Zoe Thomas: Okay. But Blue Origin took a different approach. What do they do?
Micah Maidenberg: Right. Blue origin has a rocket. For the launch, they’re scheduled for July 20, and the spacecraft bursts into space and eventually a capsule, where the passengers will sit, detach from the rocket and sort of go past what’s called the Kármán Line, which is kind of a definition of space. Blue Origin’s rocket is reusable, so it returns to the company’s West Texas space facility, of course it’s supposed to land there, and the capsule descends under a parachute.
Zoe Thomas: If all goes according to plan, Richard Branson leaves for space nine days before Jeff Bezos. Is there some kind of rivalry here and is it helping or hurting the industry?
Micah Maidenberg: Yeah, I mean, Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos kind of first announced that Mr. Bezos would be joining others on July 20. And after that, after regulatory approval, Virgin Galactic came out and said, well, Richard Branson is going to join a flight on July 11. Now, I actually asked the company about this last week and they said, listen, we’re doing this because we’re technically ready and now is the right time. Is there a rivalry there? I imagine a lot of people would kind of see this rivalry. I think companies too, or at least some analysts who follow companies, sort of see the efforts of both creating, in a way, an interest in the industry.
Zoe Thomas: Another difference about these flights is who’s on them. Virgin Galactic takes its founder, Richard Branson and other mission specialists. But Blue Origin is taking passengers, including Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, and an unnamed auction winner. And 82-year-old astronaut Wally Funk, who actually trained in the 1960s to go to space, but never got the chance. And I just want to play a clip of Mr. Bezos telling Ms. Funk about the trip.
Jeff Bezos: You’re in zero gravity for four minutes, you come back down, we land gently on the surface of the desert. We open the hatch and you go out. What’s the first thing you’ll say?
Wally Funk: I will say, honey, this is the best thing that has ever happened to me (crosstalk).
Zoe Thomas: But beyond Wally Funk, how important is it that Blue Origin has passengers on board?
Micah Maidenberg: I mean, the most important thing is that this is their first human fight. Blue Origin does not have a pilot on its rocket. This is actually something else that is important to note. Another difference between the two companies is that with Virgin Galactic, there is a pilot who takes the plane and there is a pilot who controls the craft which ends up going into space. While Blue Origin has no pilots on board. So this is essentially their first human flight. And that’s certainly a big deal, not just because of who the passengers are.
Zoe Thomas: Do we know anything about the pricing of these flights? I can imagine they will be a bit prohibitive if you are not a billionaire.
Micah Maidenberg: Virgin Galactic has not said what price the tickets will be priced when they start selling them again. The company has collected deposits for future thefts from individuals valued at $ 250,000 each. So it is certainly not a cheap flight.
Zoe Thomas: What about Blue Origin? What do we know about the price of their tickets?
Micah Maidenberg: As far as I know, Blue Origin has not disclosed what those costs might be.
Zoe Thomas: Okay. The price is therefore a bit unknown. What does this mean for when we can expect space tourism to become something a little more accessible for the rest of us?
Micah Maidenberg: Yeah, that’s a good question. Part of what’s going on with these two thefts this month is that these top-tier billionaire entrepreneurs are getting behind their products. They are going to experience what the companies they founded have been working on for many years. And I think a lot of people watching the industry kind of see these fights as an inflection point that would shift the whole space tourism industry, which isn’t really an industry yet, but a kind It’s speculative that someday you might have people paying money to go to space the same way they might pay to go on a cruise ship or something like that. But these fights are seen as a bit of a time when this shift towards greater consumer orientation begins to occur. The point is, it can be years before there is any sort of mass access to this kind of travel.
Zoe Thomas: So if I can be super nerdy, it’s kind of a small step for an industry and a giant leap for two billionaires.
Micah Maidenberg: It’s definitely one way of looking at it. Bezos and Branson have talked a lot about their dreams, their long-held dreams, to go to space. What this means in terms of the space tourism industry is hard to say, but it is still, I think, far from being something ubiquitous for most people.
Zoe Thomas: Okay. This is our reporter, Micah Maidenberg. Thanks for joining us, Micah.
Micah Maidenberg: Thanks Zoe.
Zoe Thomas: Well that’s it for Tech News Briefing this week. You can always find more tech stories on our website, wsj.com. Our supervising producer is Chris Zinsli and our executive producer is Kateri Jochum. I’m your host, Zoe Thomas. Thanks for listening.