Bezos flies to space on Blue Origin’s first crew launch

Oliver Daemen, Jeff Bezos, Wally Funk, and Mark Bezos pose with the New Shepard booster that carried them to space Tuesday. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, his brother, a pioneering female pilot, and an 18-year-old Dutch student launched to the edge of space Tuesday on a 66-mile-high suborbital flight aboard his company’s New Shepard rocket, the latest achievement in a new era of billionaire-backed human spaceflight.

Jeff Bezos, joined by his younger brother Mark, 82-year-old aviation pioneer Wally Funk, and 18-year Oliver Daemen from the Netherlands, boarded the New Shepard capsule just after sunrise at a privately-owned launch site north of Van Horn, Texas.

Wearing blue flight suits, the four-person crew rode in Rivian electric trucks from Blue Origin’s training center to the launch site, climbed the launch pad tower, and took their seats inside the spaceship sitting on top of a 60-foot-tall (19-meter) booster. After a smooth countdown, the New Shepard booster lit its hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine at 8:11 a.m. CDT (9:11 a.m. EDT; 1311 GMT).

The single stage New Shepard booster climbed away from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One and rocketed into a sunny sky, exceeding the speed of sound in about one minute before quickly accelerating through the stratosphere.

The BE-3 engine shut down about 2 minutes, 20 seconds, into the flight, leaving the rocket and crew capsule to coast to the apogee, or high point, of its up-and-down trajectory. Moments later, the rocket separated from the spacecraft carrying Bezos and his crewmates, allowing the passengers to briefly unstrap from their seats and float in the gumdrop-shaped capsule.

The four-person crew had a chance to look out six windows, enjoying views of the Southwest United States under the deep black backdrop of space. An in-cabin video released after the flight showed the passengers floating in the capsule, appearing elated with the experience as they played with candy and other items.

The capsule reached a maximum altitude of 351,210 feet about four minutes after launch and began descending back to Earth. Top speed on ascent was 2,233 mph (3,595 kilometers per hour), according to Blue Origin.

The reusable rocket deployed drag brakes to slow its descent, then reignited its throttleable BE-3 engine and extended four landing legs for a pinpoint touchdown more than seven minutes after liftoff, arriving on a landing pad about two miles north of the launch site.

Double sonic booms rippled across the barren landscape as the rocket returned to Earth.

The 12.5-foot-wide (3.8-meter) crew capsule opened three main parachutes to slow down for landing on the desert floor at Bezos’s 80,000-acre West Texas test site nearly 11 minutes after it took off.

The crew’s families and friends greeted the spaceship after landing. Bezos, the world’s richest man, emerged from the capsule wearing a cowboy hat, and Funk exited the hatch with arms outstretched, celebrating her first trip to space 60 years after her first taste of astronaut life.

“Best day ever!” Bezos exclaimed soon after landing.

The mission added four more space fliers to the roster of people who have reached an altitude of at least 50 miles (80 kilometers) above Earth, the boundary of space recognized by NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the U.S. military.

There are now 587 individuals who have flown to that altitude since 1961.

Bezos made his fortune with the founding of Amazon in 1994. His net worth is currently more than $200 billion, according to Bloomberg and Forbes.

He established Blue Origin in 2000, leading to development of the New Shepard suborbital booster and crew capsule. Tuesday’s flight was be the first time a New Shepard rocket took off with people on-board, following 15 straight successful test launches without passengers.

Bezos, 57, asked his younger brother Mark, 53, to join him on the New Shepard spaceflight. He also invited 82-year-old female aviation pioneer Wally Funk, who was one of 13 women who endured the same rigorous testing as the all-male original Mercury 7 astronauts.

Funk and the other female pilots were part of a privately-funded astronaut screening testing program in the early 1960s that was unsanctioned by NASA, which only selected male astronauts in that era.

The fourth crew member was Blue Origin’s first paying passenger, an 18-year-old Dutch student named Oliver Daemen who took the place of an auction winner who bid $28 million for the seat last month. Blue Origin says the auction winner, who wants to remain anonymous, backed out of today’s flight due to a scheduling conflict and will launch on a later New Shepard flight.

Daemen’s father is Joes Daemen, founder of Somerset Capital Partners. He participated in the auction last month and won a seat for his son on the second New Shepard Launch with passengers. Blue Origin bumped Daemen up to the first passenger flight after the auction winner decided to fly on a later mission.

“My expectations were high, and they were dramatically exceeded,” Bezos said after Tuesday’s flight. “The zero G (zero gravity) piece may have been one of the biggest surprises because it felt so normal. It felt almost like we, as humans, evolved to be in that environment, which I know is impossible, but it felt so serene and peaceful floating.”

Daemen agreed, adding that it felt “natural” to move around in microgravity for the few minutes the capsule was in space.

Bezos described the experience of seeing the atmosphere as a thin veneer over Earth’s surface.

“When you get up above it, what you see is it’s actually … this tiny little fragile thing, and as we move about the planet, we’re damaging it,” he said. “That’s very profound.”

Blue Origin flew several aviation artifacts on the suborbital space shot, including a piece of canvas from the Wright Flyer and Amelia Earhart’s goggles.

Mark Bezos said the flight was “incredibly exhilarating.” He said the passengers pulled 5Gs during descent.

Funk, an accomplished flight instructor with more than 19,000 flight hours in airplanes, said the launch into space Tuesday “felt great.”

“I loved every minute,” she said. “I just wish it had been longer.”

She said she would have liked to do more twists and rolls as she floated in space.

The New Shepard booster is named for NASA astronaut Alan Shepard, who became the first American to travel in space in 1961 on a similar suborbital trajectory as the one flown by Blue Origin. Shepard’s daughters viewed the New Shepard launch Tuesday as guests of Blue Origin.

Bezos’s launch to the edge of space came nine days after billionaire Richard Branson rode his company’s rocketplane to an altitude of 282,000 feet (53 miles; 86 kilometers) over New Mexico.

Branson’s flight was the first time Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocketplane has flown with a full complement of passengers, but the company previously completed three piloted flights over the 50-mile (80-kilometer) mark with the VSS Unity spacecraft.

Blue Origin’s rocket can fly to a higher altitude, above the so-called Kármán line, the internationally-recognized edge of space at an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers).

SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, has advanced beyond suborbital missions. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is the one of the most reliable satellite launchers in the world, and the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft has ferried NASA astronauts to the International Space Station three times.

While the billionaires often eschew comparisons between them, and deny suggestions they’re in a race, they all started their space companies in the early 2000s. Bezos established Blue Origin first, in 2000, followed by Musk’s founding of SpaceX in 2002 and Branson’s unveiling of Virgin Galactic in 2004.

Branson tweeted his congratulations to Blue Origin’s team Tuesday.

“Well done Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos, Mark, Wally, and Oliver,” he tweeted. “Impressive! Very best to all the crew from me and all the team at Virgin Galactic.”

Musk also tweeted “congrats” to Blue Origin.

Despite the technical accomplishments, questions remain about the market for suborbital space tourism, mainly due to the steep price.

A ticket for a seat on a Virgin Galactic flight costs between $250,000 and $500,000. Bezos declined to answer questions from reporters Tuesday on the cost of a New Shepard seat, but the initial tranche of auctioned seats sold for millions of dollars.

Blue Origin plans two more New Shepard flights with passengers later this year. Bezos said Blue Origin is approaching $100 million in New Shepard ticket sales.

“Demand is very, very high,” he said after Tuesday’s flight.

He said the state of the commercial human spaceflight industry is similar to the “barnstormer phase” of aviation a century ago. Advocates for the space tourism industry say it will eventually open up access to space for more people.

“These are biplanes, and they’re flying into a farmer’s field and charging a price to fly people around for a few minutes in the air,” Bezos said. “That’s what we’re doing right now. But you know where that barnstorming phase leads? To 787s, and that’s what we have to do.”

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.