Blue Origin launches six people to suborbital space

Blue Origin’s NS-21 gets underway with launch of a New Shepard rocket from West Texas. Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard rocket propelled six people to an altitude of more than 60 miles over West Texas Saturday, including the first Mexican-born woman to fly to space.

The company has now flown five missions carrying 25 people to suborbital space, and aims to nearly double that figure by the end of this year, according to a host on the Blue Origin webcast Saturday. The company’s first human mission last July carried billionaire founder Jeff Bezos and three co-passengers.

The flight began with liftoff from Blue Origin’s privately-owned spaceport north of Van Horn, Texas, at 9:25 a.m. EDT (1325 GMT; 8:25 a.m. CDT). The mission, designated NS-21, was previously scheduled to launch May 20, but Blue Origin delayed the flight to address a problem with a backup system on the New Shepard rocket.

The six passengers on the NS-21 mission included Katya Echazarreta, a 26-year-old electrical engineer who will become the first first Mexican-born woman and the youngest American woman to fly to space. Born in Guadalajara, Echazarreta earned her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from UCLA in 2019, and worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory supporting several projects, including the Perseverance rover on Mars and the Europa Clipper mission now in development.

Echazarreta’s flight was sponsored by a nonprofit called Space for Humanity. She is the co-host of the YouTube series “Netflix IRL” and “Electric Kat” on the CBS show “Mission Unstoppable.”

Evan Dick, an engineer and investor, became the first repeat customer for Blue Origin. He flew to space on the NS-19 mission in December.

The NS-21 mission also carried the second Brazilian to fly to space. Victor Correa Hespanha, 28, won a lottery to secure his seat on the New Shepard rocket. Hespanha is a civil production engineer, whose ride is sponsored by the Crypto Space Agency, an organization which says its “core mission is to converge the space industry’s technology with the innovation and financial power of the crypto markets to accelerate mankind’s off-world future.”

The other passengers on the NS-21 mission included Jaison Robinson, founder of the commercial real estate company JJM Investments and co-founder of Dream Variations Ventures, which invests in tech and sports startups. Robinson has a law degree and was a finalist on the TV show “Survivor” in 2009.

Victor Vescovo and Hamish Harding rounded out the passenger manifest for the NS-21 mission.

Vescovo is an equity investor and retired naval intelligence officer who has climbed the tallest mountains on all seven continents, and dived to Challenger Deep, the deepest point in the world’s oceans.

Harding is chairman of Action Aviation, a business jet brokerage company he founded in 2004, and also a business jet pilot, according to Blue Origin. He holds several aviation world records.

The passengers on Blue Origin’s NS-21 mission, from left to right: Victor Correa Hespanha, Katya Echazarreta, Jaison Robinson, Hamish Harding, Evan Dick, and Victor Vescovo. Credit: Blue Origin

In preparation for Saturday morning’s mission, Blue Origin rolled the New Shepard to the launch pad overnight and raised it vertical for final checkouts. The single-stage rocket stands about 60 feet, or 18 meters, tall and is powered by one BE-3 engine burning a mix of super-cold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants.

The launch team loaded the cryogenic propellants into the New Shepard booster early Saturday, while the six passengers finished preparations at a nearby facility the company calls “Astronaut Village.”

The passengers, who didn’t wear spacesuits for their 10-minute ride to space, traveled to the launch pad and boarded the crew capsule on top of the New Shepard booster about 35 minutes before liftoff. The ground support team closed the hatch at about T-minus 24 minutes, then moved to a fallback position for launch.

The rocket’s BE-3 engine throttled up to full power, then clamps released to allow the New Shepard booster to begin a vertical climb away from its launch pad. The BE-3 produce about 110,000 pounds of thrust at full power, firing for about 2 minutes, 20 seconds, to propel the New Shepard and its six passengers toward space.

After engine cutoff, the crew capsule separated from the booster to begin independent arcing trajectories, passing above the von Kármán line — the internationally recognized boundary of space — at an altitude of about 62 miles (100 kilometers) for a couple of minutes. That gave the passengers in the capsule time to unstrap from their seats and float around the pressurized cabin, enjoying expansive views through the largest windows ever flown in space.

The crew capsule reached a top speed of 2,240 mph (3,604 kilometers per hour) and arced to an apogee, or high point, of 351,815 feet (107 kilometers) above sea level, Blue Origin said.

The passengers returned to their seats before the spacecraft fell back into the thicker layers of the atmosphere, bracing for parachute deployment and touchdown on the desert floor a few miles from the launch site. The entire flight from liftoff to landing will lasted 10 minutes, 5 seconds, according to Blue Origin.

Meanwhile, the reusable booster made its own precision descent back to Earth, nailing a propulsive vertical touchdown on a landing pad a few minutes before the capsule made its return. The flight marked the 21st launch of a New Shepard booster, and the seventh flight by this particular rocket.

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