Jeff Bezos is an Internet entrepreneur who is also the founder of Blue Origin, a somewhat secretive space company that is working on a suborbital crew capsule.
Blue Origin is conducting tests under NASA's Commercial Crew Program (CCP), which is intended to bring new private American crewed vehicles into space. (Space Exploration Technologies, which is better known as SpaceX and is developing the Dragon spacecraft, is also a beneficiary of the program.)
Bezos made his fortune as the founder and CEO of Amazon, a company that greatly contributed to the establishment of electronic commerce (e-commerce) as a viable business model.
He was named Time's Person of the Year in 1999 and according to Forbes, has an estimated net worth of $23.2 billion as of September 2012.
Teenage dreams of space
Born to teenage parents, Bezos had an itinerant childhood that saw him grow up in several U.S. cities. He also spent the summers at his grandfather's ranch in Texas.
"His grandfather sparked and indulged Jeff's fascination with educational games and toys, assisting him with the Heathkits and the other paraphernalia he constantly hauled home to the family garage," read a 2004 profile of Bezos in Wired magazine. (Heathkits were do-it-yourself kits for building electronic products.)
"Picture the scattered components of a robot; an open umbrella spine clad in aluminum foil for a solar cooking experiment; an ancient Hoover vacuum cleaner being transformed into a primitive hovercraft."
Bezos' energy for innovation kept his family busy as he was growing up, but his interests did not wane as he got older. Even as a teenager, Bezos wanted to get involved in space – not as an astronaut, but an entrepreneur. It seemed a heady dream for a teenager in the 1970s and 1980s, but Bezos was reportedly determined. First, though, he would need to make a pile of money.
He chose the nascent field of computer science to make his fortune, getting his start working for several companies in the field. In 1994, Bezos founded Amazon with a plan to sell books over the Internet. From humble beginnings in his garage, Bezos expanded his e-business into an empire selling everything from toasters to clothing to car parts.
Still at the helm as of late 2012, Bezos is on the frontier of the e-publishing movement. The Kindle Fire, which is the latest version of Amazon's e-reader, was expected to perform very well during the 2012 holiday season. But Bezos is also making waves in the space field with his company, Blue Origin.
Spaceflight in secret
In 2000 – shortly after Bezos was named Time's Person of the Year for his work on the Internet – Bezos turned his attention to space. He quietly founded a company called Blue Origin, which would develop a vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing rocket ship that could pop passengers into suborbital space.
According to media reports, Bezos kept his plans very quiet for years. Most of the company's information came out through mandatory disclosures to the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA as Bezos sought regulatory approvals and funding.
It wasn't until the late 2000s when Blue Origin had a detailed website and promotional materials available on it, in stark contrast to companies such as SpaceX.
"The technical challenges of escaping Earth’s gravity well and reaching orbit have never been trivial, and are compounded when higher reliability and lower cost are required," the website read in early 2013. "We are working patiently, step by step, to reach these long-term goals."
Blue Origin's aim is to launch a spacecraft called New Shepard – a ship reportedly named after Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space in 1961. The spacecraft has a crew module that can hold three or more astronauts, as well as a propulsion section that boosts the ship for the first 2.5 minutes of flight.
The company's long-term goal is to do orbital flights, Blue Origin stated, using a reusable first stage instead of one that is expendable. "The fact that each mammoth vehicle is thrown away after a single use contributes to the staggering cost of spaceflight," the company said.
The company's development plans, although kept quiet from the media, appear to be impressing those in NASA circles. Blue Origin received $22 million in 2011 under the agency's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program to spur the development of New Shepard's design and escape system.
All told, the company garnered about $26 million from NASA in the first two rounds of funding, but was not included in the 2012 round. [Infographic: Blue Origin's Secretive Space Vehicle Explained]
Blue Origin's largest publicly disclosed setback came in 2011, when a vehicle was destroyed during a test. Bezos revealed the failure a week after the fact in a short blog post on Blue Origin's website.
"Three months ago, we successfully flew our second test vehicle in a short hop mission, and then last week we lost the vehicle during a developmental test at Mach 1.2 and an altitude of 45,000 feet," he wrote.
"A flight instability drove an angle of attack that triggered our range safety system to terminate thrust on the vehicle. Not the outcome any of us wanted, but we're signed up for this to be hard, and the Blue Origin team is doing an outstanding job. We're already working on our next development vehicle."
In October 2012, Blue Origin revealed it had conducted a successful rocket escape test, which is a key milestone in rating the spacecraft safe for humans to ride. Although the system is supposed to work on the suborbital spacecraft, the company also plans to use the technology for its orbital flights. [Photos: Glimpses of Secretive Blue Origin's Private Spaceships]
"The progress Blue Origin has made on its suborbital and orbital capabilities really is encouraging for the overall future of human spaceflight," NASA CCP manager Ed Mango said in an October 2012 statement. "It was awesome to see a spacecraft NASA played a role in developing take flight."
NASA, which is supporting several companies for human-rated space vehicles, is hoping that at least a couple of them will be ready for 2017. In the meantime, Americans will rely on the Russian's Soyuz spacecraft to make flights to and from the International Space Station.
— Elizabeth Howell, SPACE.com Contributor