Jeff Bezos is going to space for 11 minutes. Here’s how risky that is

The answer isn’t what you might expect. Space travel is, historically, fraught with danger. Though the risks are not necessarily astronomical for Bezos’ jaunt to the cosmos, as his space company Blue Origin has spent the better part of the last decade running the suborbital New Shepard rocket he’ll be riding on through a series of successful test flights. (Also, being in space is Bezos’ lifelong dream.)

Still, what Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, and the winner of an online auction, will be doing — going on the very first crewed flight of New Shepard, a fully autonomous suborbital rocket and spacecraft system designed to take ticket holders on brief joy rides to space — is not entirely without risk.

Here’s what Bezos’ flight will look like and the extent to which people are taking their lives in their hands when they go to outer space these days.

What the flight looks like

When most people think about spaceflight, they think about an astronaut circling the Earth, floating in space, for at least a few days.

That is not what the Bezos brothers and their fellow passengers will be doing .

They’ll be going up and coming right back down, and they’ll be doing it in less time — about 11 minutes — than it takes most people to get to work.

Suborbital flights differ greatly from orbital flights of the type most of us think of when we think of spaceflight. Blue Origin’s New Shepard flights will be brief, up-and-down trips, though they will go more than 62 miles above Earth, which is widely considered to be the edge of outer space.

Jeff Bezos is going to space on first crewed flight of rocket
Orbital rockets need to drum up enough power to hit at least 17,000 miles per hour, or what’s known as orbital velocity, essentially giving a spacecraft enough energy to continue whipping around the Earth rather than being dragged immediately back down by gravity.

Suborbital flights require far less power and speed. That means less time the rocket is required to burn, lower temperatures scorching the outside of the spacecraft, less force and compression ripping at the spacecraft, and generally fewer opportunities for something to go very wrong.

New Shepard’s suborbital fights hit about about three times the speed of sound — roughly 2,300 miles per hour — and fly directly upward until the rocket expends most of its fuel. The crew capsule will then separate from the rocket at the top of the trajectory and briefly continue upward before the capsule almost hovers at the top of its flight path, giving the passengers a few minutes of weightlessness. It works sort of like an extended version of the weightlessness you experience when you reach the peak of a roller coaster hill, just before gravity brings your cart — or, in Bezos’ case, your space capsule — screaming back down toward the ground.
A graphic that shows the flight profile of Blue Origin's New Shepard.

The New Shepard capsule then deploys a large plume of parachutes to slow its descent to less than 20 miles per hour before it hits the ground.

The rocket, flying separately, re-ignites its engines and uses its on-board computers to execute a pinpoint, upright landing. The booster landing looks similar to what SpaceX does with its Falcon 9 rockets, though those rockets are far more powerful than New Shepard and — yes — more prone to…

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