We are not fans of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ politics, although we are regular shoppers at his Amazon business.
But we had to appreciate Bezos’ appreciation of history as he approached his launch into outer space, riding a rocket his new company invented which he called “New Shepard” after the very first United States launch of a manned spacecraft piloted by the late Rear Admiral Alan Shepard in 1961.
I was 9 years old on May 5, 1961, and my classmates and I in Mrs. Strunk’s fourth-grade classroom at Rolling Acres Elementary School watched every second of the Mercury-Redstone 3 flight. I suspect Bezos was in a similar situation.
The Shepard mission was our answer to the Russians in a race where we had not yet begun to pull ahead.
But we would. Twenty days after MR-3’s successful flight, President Kennedy said to Congress:
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
Was he right? You bet. The additional benefit of the program was the spin-off technology. In many respects, Shepard’s flight helped create billionaires like Bezos by creating the technology that makes companies like Amazon work — even though nobody really knew that at the time.
So you can dislike Bezos’ politics — I do — but you cannot dismiss what he has accomplished. Or Elon Musk, or Richard Branson.
Let’s put this another way.
My first real job was as a sportswriter at the Peoria (Illinois) Journal Star when I was in high school.
In the 1960s, just seven years after Freedom 7 (MR-3) took flight, if you wanted to publish a newspaper, you needed a huge building, very expensive web presses and hundreds of people to produce a daily or weekly newspaper of any size.
Today, you can do what we do with a laptop computer, some well-written software and a nearly free website, all of which focuses the attention on the content as opposed to the production.
Back in Shepard’s day, to get into space, you needed what only the government could then provide: billions of dollars.
Today, you need an investment bank or some other way of raising capital, a risk-taking billionaire and a team of people who back in the day would have worked for the government.
Bezos’ Tuesday flight was close to flawless. It also broke the record for the oldest person in space because one of the astronauts was Wally Funk, who trained with the original Mercury astronauts but never flew, largely because of her gender. She was is 82.
In many respects, it was the modern suborbital version of May 5, 1961, albeit without test pilots.
Now for an orbital flight that Bezos intends to call New Glenn after John Glenn’s three-orbit Mercury-Atlas 5, which he called Friendship 7. (In order to get into Earth orbit, NASA needed a more powerful rocket than the Redstone, so they went with the Atlas.)
Just as we owe the original test pilots of NASA who took us to the moon, so will we owe Bezos, Musk, Branson and the others as they commercialize space.
The first group helped us show the communists that a free exchange of ideas got us there years before anyone expected it would happen, at least at the outset.
Today, the second group shows that capitalism works.
Imagine Cuba or Venezuela trying this.
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