In April 2015, at a launch site surrounded by the desolation and scrub brush of West Texas, a stubby, somewhat suggestively shaped rocket lifted off from a small launch facility. There were no big crowds of observers, no phalanx of cheering staffers, no fleet of media satellite trucks to witness the event.
The rocket powered its way to just over 57 miles above the Earth’s surface, where a windowed, gumdrop-shaped capsule separated cleanly from the booster section, skirted the edge of space, and began to drift back down to the ground. Minutes later, parachutes deployed, and the unmanned capsule landed with not much more than a dusty fanfare in the scrub brush and cacti near the launch site. It all looked like no big deal.
But it was a very, very big deal. The rocket is called the New Shepherd, and the company that built and launched it is Blue Origin, operated by billionaire Jeff Bezos, the founder of, and currently one of the 10 richest people on Earth.
If space is the place, it’s gotten awfully crowded in the last 10 years.
In 2010, President Barack Obama announced the end of the space shuttle program and killed the Constellation program, the system meant to succeed the shuttle, which felt like a slap in the face to anyone who’s looked to the skies and stars with wonder. But the program’s end freed up vital dollars and enabled a remarkable transition, from NASA as sole space innovator to NASA as curator, incubator, Daddy Warbucks even, for a battery of upstart companies and billionaires with the bankroll to build rockets — and planets haunting their dreams.