Riding his own rocket, Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos streaked into space Tuesday on a thrilling 10-minute up-and-down flight, a high-tech joyride that sets the stage for the start of commercial passenger service later this year.
“Best day ever!” an elated Bezos said upon landing.
Competing head to head with fellow billionaire Richard Branson, who flew into space aboard his Virgin Galactic rocketplane July 11, Bezos blasted off with his brother Mark and two history-making passengers: 82-year-old aviation pioneer Wally Funk, the oldest person to fly in space, and Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old Dutch student who is the youngest ever to fly in space.
Funk, who was barred from NASA’s initially all-male astronaut corps in the 1960s, finally got her chance to prove the naysayers wrong, realizing a lifelong dream.
The crew lifted off from the company’s West Texas launch site at 9:12 a.m. EDT.
Climbing straight up atop 110,000 pounds of push, the rocket rapidly accelerated as it consumed its load of supercold liquid oxygen and hydrogen propellants, pushing the passengers back in their recliner-style seats with about three times the normal force of gravity.
In a little more than two minutes, the spacecraft was shooting skyward at three times the speed of sound, dwindling to a blur more than 30 miles up. A few seconds later, at an altitude of about 45 miles, the booster’s company-designed BE-3 main engine shut down and the crew capsule was released to fly on its own.
Coasting upward along an unpowered ballistic trajectory, Bezos and his crewmates enjoyed about three minutes of weightlessness, unstrapping, floating about the cabin and taking in the view through the largest windows ever built into a spacecraft.
“I love it!” Funk exclaimed.
Tossing candy and ping pong balls back and forth, doing somersaults and marveling at the view, the crew cavorted like school kids, clearly thrilled by the experience.
“Who wants a Skittle?” Bezos called. “All right, see if you can catch this in your mouth.” Daemen did just that, prompting cheers in the cabin. “Toss me one,” Bezos said. “Awesome!”
“That is just incredible,” Daemen said a moment later.
“I love it, I love it,” Funk said again. She could be seen floating in front of a window, staring out at Earth and space, a view she had dreamed about for decades.
The capsule, named “First Step,” reached a maximum altitude of 66.5 miles, more than four miles above the internationally recognized 62-mile-high “boundary” between the aerodynamically discernible atmosphere and space.
That’s the altitude recognized by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, a Switzerland-based organization that sanctions aerospace records.
Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceplane flies about 10 miles lower but well above the 50-mile altitude recognized by NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration as the point where wings, rudders and other aerosurfaces no longer have any effect.
Two minutes after booster engine shutdown and the onset of weightlessness, the crew was warned they had about a minute to make their way back to their seats to strap in for re-entry. All too soon, weight returned as both began falling back into the lower atmosphere.
The crew had no problems strapping back in. And even on the way down, the view was spectacular. “It’s dark up here!” Funk exclaimed. One of her crewmates could be heard saying “well, that was intense” while another said he was “happy, happy, happy!”
The reusable New Shepard booster, meanwhile, headed back to Earth on its own, plunging tail first toward a landing pad two miles from the launch site.
The rocket relied on deployable air brakes and steering fins to maintain its orientation before re-igniting its BE-3 engine, unfolding four hinged legs and settling to a picture-perfect landing.
“Your booster has landed,” Blue Origin capsule communicator, or CAPCOM, Sarah Knights radioed the crew.
“It’s great to hear about the booster,” Bezos replied replied. “You have a very happy crew up here, I want you to know.”
At an altitude of about 2,700 feet, three large parachutes unfurled and inflated, slowing the New Shepard’s descent to about 16 mph.
Then, just six feet or so off the ground, nitrogen powered thrusters fired, slowing the capsule to just 1 mph and kicking up a roiling cloud of dust as the spacecraft gently touched down.
“Welcome back to Earth, First Step, congratulations to all of you,” Knights radioed.
“Very happy group of people in this capsule,” Bezos replied. “We’re so grateful to everybody who made this possible. Thank you.”
Blue Origin recovery crews converged on the capsule within minutes of touchdown to open the hatch and help the returning astronauts exit. All four emerged in obvious high spirits, smiling and hugging family members and support personnel.
“Oh my God!” Bezos told reporters later. “My expectations were high, and they were drastically exceeded. The zero G (gravity) piece may have been one of the biggest surprises because it felt so normal, it felt almost like humans evolved to be in that environment. … It’s a very pleasurable experience.”
The most profound aspect, he said, was the view of Earth from an altitude that showcased the fragility of the planet and its thin atmosphere.
“Every astronaut, everybody who’s been up into space, they say this, that it changes them, and they look at it and they’re kind of amazed and awestruck by the Earth and it beauty, but also by its fragility,” he said. “And I can vouch for that.
“It’s one thing to recognize that intellectually, it’s another thing to actually see with your own eyes how fragile it really is. And that was amazing.”
Funk, who once underwent grueling medical tests only to be barred from NASA’s early astronaut corps, said she enjoyed “every minute of it.”
“I want to thank you, sweetheart, because you made it possible for me,” she told Bezos. “I’ve been waiting a long time to finally get it up there. … I loved it. I loved being here with all of you, your families. We had a great time. It was wonderful. I want to go again, fast!”
“I have been waiting a long time to finally get up there”
Former astronaut Jeff Ashby, now chief of mission assurance at Blue Origin, pinned astronaut wings on all four crew members.
As for Tuesday’s flight, it was the 16th successful launch of a New Shepard spacecraft, the third for the booster and First Step capsule, and Blue Origin’s first with passengers on board.
Blue Origin plans to launch three more New Shepard flights before the end of the year, one with science payloads on board and two with passengers.
“We’re going to fly human missions twice more this year,” Bezos said. “What we do in the following year, I’m not sure yet. We’ll figure that out and what the cadence will eventually be. We want the cadence to be very high.”
He added, “We’re approaching $100 million in private sales already and the demand is very, very high. So we’re going to keep after that.”
Ticket prices have not been revealed. The cost of a flight aboard Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane is believed to be around $250,000 and Blue Origin tickets are expected to be competitive. But both companies hope economies of scale will eventually lower prices to less astronomical levels.
“We’re not done once we fly this vehicle, it’s really just the beginning,” Lai said. “We are going to ramp up operations. We’re going to have dozens and eventually hundreds and thousands of astronauts we hope fly on New Shepard. So it is just the beginning. But it is a monumental moment nevertheless.”