Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, and three crewmates soared high above the Texas desert aboard his space venture Blue Origin’s New Shepard launch vehicle on Tuesday and returned to Earth, a historic suborbital flight that helps to inaugurate a new era of private commercial space tourism.
There were generally clear skies with a few patchy clouds on a cool morning for the launch.
The 57-year-old American billionaire flew on a voyage lasting about 10 minutes and 20 seconds to the edge of space, nine days after British rival Richard Branson was aboard his competing space tourism company Virgin Galactic’s successful inaugural suborbital flight from New Mexico.
Mr Branson got to space first, but Bezos was due to fly higher – 100km for Blue Origin compared to 86km for Virgin Galactic – in what experts call the world’s first unpiloted space flight with an all-civilian crew.
From left to right: Mark Bezos, brother of Jeff Bezos; Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and space tourism company Blue Origin; Oliver Daemen, of the Netherlands; and Wally Funk, aviation pioneer from Texas, pose for a photo. Photograph: Blue Origin via AP
Mr Bezos, founder of ecommerce juggernaut Amazon. com Inc, and his brother and private equity executive Mark Bezos were joined in the flight by two others. Pioneering female aviator Wally Funk, 82, and recent high school graduate Oliver Daemen, 18, became the oldest and youngest people to reach space.
“I am excited, but not anxious. We’ll see how I feel when I’m strapped into my seat,” Mr Bezos said in an interview with Fox Business Network on Monday. “... We’re ready. The vehicle’s ready. This team is amazing. I feel very good about it. And I think my fellow crewmates feel good about it, too.”
Ms Funk was one of the so-called Mercury 13 group of women who trained to become Nasa astronauts in the early 1960s but was passed over because of her gender. Daemen, Blue Origin’s first paying customer, is set to attend the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands to study physics and innovation management in September. His father heads investment management firm Somerset Capital Partners.
The launch was being witnessed by members of the Bezos family and Blue Origin employees, and a few spectators gathered along the highway before dawn.
New Shepard is a 18.3-metre tall and fully autonomous rocket-and-capsule combo that cannot be piloted from inside the spacecraft. It is completely computer-flown and will have none of Blue Origin’s staff astronauts or trained personnel onboard.
In contrast, Virgin Galactic used a space plane with a pair of pilots onboard.
Tuesday’s launch marks another landmark in the “billionaire’s race” to establish a space tourism sector that Swiss investment bank UBS estimates will reach $3 billion annually in a decade. Another billionaire tech mogul, Elon Musk, plans to send an all-civilian crew on an even more ambitious flight in September: a several-day orbital mission on his Crew Dragon capsule.
Blue Origin has not offered details on its longer-term pricing strategy or how quickly it will ramp up the frequency of its launches. Chief executive Bob Smith has said the next flight is likely in September or October. Smith said the “willingness to pay continues to be quite high” for people interested in future flights.
The company appears to have a reservoir of future customers. More than 6,000 people from at least 143 countries entered an auction to become the first paying customer, though the auction winner who made a $28 million bid ultimately dropped out of Tuesday’s flight.
Mr Bezos, who founded Blue Origin in 2000, has a net worth of $206 billion according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. He stepped down this month as Amazon CEO but remains its executive chairman. – Reuters