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More than a joy ride

The richest man on Earth briefly lost that title Tuesday morning, but only because for a few floaty minutes he was no longer on Earth. Jeff Bezos has spent two decades using his Amazon wealth to underwrite a rocket venture, Blue Origin. On Tuesday the company launched its first manned flight to space, with Bezos on board.

After riding the New Shepard rocket to Mach 3, experiencing weightlessness, and parachuting back to the Texas desert, Bezos thanked the engineers and crew, along with “every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer,” because “you guys paid for all this.”

It’s easy to dismiss this as a joy ride, which in part it was, or as the indulgence of a rich man. But as billionaires’ hobbies go, this is more productive than, well, owning the Washington Post. “The architecture and the technology we have chosen,”î Bezos said, “is complete overkill for a suborbital tourism mission.”î That’s because the mission isn’t limited to expensive thrills.

Tourism is merely the first rung of the space ladder. Blue Origin has two more manned flights scheduled for this year, and Bezos said the company is approaching $100 million in private sales. Virgin Galactic has presold hundreds of tickets for its space plane, which flew its founder, Richard Branson, to weightlessness last week. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has ferried NASA astronauts to orbit, but it has private flights on the calendar, too.

It isn’t clear how big this tourism market will be, but the competition is clearly on, as Blue Origin brags that its capsule has bigger windows than the other guy’s. As these companies strive to outdo each other, costs will fall. Engineering advances, such as reusable rockets that land vertically, have already slashed the price of getting cargo to space.

The money paid by wealthy passengers will also help these companies go higher. Blue Origin has other projects in the works, including a rocket that will be big enough to put satellites into orbit. Musk is aiming for Mars. The benefits of all this are hard to say precisely, but that’s the nature of exploration and entrepreneurial risk-taking.

Several companies are working on constellations of small satellites that could beam fast internet to remote areas. Novel uses of technology are harder to predict, but surprises happen when smart people are trying to be the first to achieve some milestone. Nobody working on America’s first satellite missions in the 1950s and ’60s could have ever imagined that the Global Positioning System, or GPS, would one day keep millions of people from getting lost.

Bezos has reportedly been putting around $1 billion a year into Blue Origin, no small sum. But it will pay dividends to have another competitor reaching for the stars. It might look like one small jaunt for Bezos, but it’s another big leap for America’s commercial space business.

* Editorial from the Wall Street Journal

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