Blue Origin successfully completed its first crewed launch on Tuesday, sending four human passengers into space, including company founder Jeff Bezos. The result of billions of dollars in investments, dozens of test launches and a few petty feuds among ultra-rich founders, the triumph of the New Shepard, as well as that of Virgin Galactic earlier this month, undoubtedly heralds the dawn of a new space age. tourism.
It was quite a media spectacle. The mission took place at Launch Site One, Blue Origin’s sprawling and secretive facility which is about thirty miles north of the small town of Van Horn, Texas. All hotels in Van Horn and neighboring towns ran out of rooms in the days leading up to the launch as spectators traveled to the event; meanwhile, a huge herd of local, national and online outlets (including yours) swarmed the news site as early as 2:30 am CST. Despite a few premature calls for rain in the early hours of the morning, the skies remained clear and things were mostly on schedule.
The crew of four – including Bezos, his brother Mark, 18-year-old student Oliver Daemen and aviation pioneer and Mercury 13 veteran Wally Funk – exited the training facility and grabbed a Rivian electric SUV. R1S on the launch pad around 45 minutes before launch. (Bezos drove a Rivian R1T pickup to the rocket landing site after its last test, a nod to Amazon’s significant investment in the EV startup.) The crew climbed the launch tower and took a brief respite in an adjacent shelter, before climbing into the capsule, nicknamed RSS First Step.
There was a brief wait at T-15 minutes, causing the launch to be slightly delayed. New Shepard took off at 8:11 a.m. CST. They crossed the Kármán Line (more on that later) at 8:15 am; capsule separation followed and the thruster returned to the launch site autonomously and with a loud boom at 8:19 a.m. The crewed capsule floated slowly to Earth via a parachute, touching land at 8:22 a.m. for a total flight time of eleven minutes.
The flight was the result of fifteen tests of the reusable New Shepard suborbital rocket, including a rehearsal launch in April that included a series of flight preparations and a fictitious crew embarked (then disembarked before takeoff) in the capsule. Blue Origin is now joining rival Virgin Galactic in a very, very small group of commercial space companies to send private citizens into orbit.
Daemon was added to the crew after the winner of the anonymous auction, which offered $ 28 million for the seat, had to step down due to a scheduling conflict. CNBC reported that Daemen’s father, CEO of Dutch private equity firm Somerset Capital Partners, placed the second highest bid. Daemen is the youngest person to be in space at 18, and Funk is the oldest at 82.
The road to space
Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, six years after launching e-commerce giant Amazon. The company has focused on space tourism and sees this flight as the proof of concept required to start flying customers. To that end, the New Shepard capsule has large windows suitable for tourism – the largest in the history of spaceflight, according to the company. “These windows make up a third of the capsule, immersing you in the vastness of space and life-changing views of our blue planet,” he says on the Blue Origin website.
The launch is also the culmination of weeks of feuds between Bezos and his billionaire rival in space, Richard Branson, who was aboard his own flight to space 10 days earlier. But despite the fact that Bezos ostensibly defeated Bezos, much of the fighting has been over what really counts as space – and if VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered spacecraft, has actually gone there.
The kerfuffle is above what is known as the Kármán Line, an internationally recognized imaginary boundary of space that lies approximately 60 miles above Earth. VSS Unity flew approximately 51.4 miles – above the limit recognized by NASA. “From the start, New Shepard was designed to fly over the Kármán Line, so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name,” Blue Origin tweeted two days before Virgin’s launch. The tweet also included a small infographic casting more shadow on Virgin flights.
From the start, New Shepard was designed to fly over the Kármán Line, so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name. For 96% of the world’s population, space begins 100 km from the internationally recognized Kármán Line. pic.twitter.com/QRoufBIrUJ
– Blue origin (@blueorigin) July 9, 2021
This is just the start for Blue Origin. Astronaut sales manager Ariane Cornell said in a pre-mission briefing on July 18 that she had “spoken to many [Blue Origin’s] future customers who have signed up for the following flights. She added that the company intends to launch two more flights this year, with CEO Bob Smith estimating that a second New Shepard crewed flight could take place in September or October.
What does this mean for the rest of us (like those who don’t have a few extra millions floating around in our bank accounts)? While the so-called billionaire space race is a small feud, the respective launches of Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are likely heralds of a new era of space travel for consumers and scientists alike. It will be limited to the rich at first, but as TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm argues, costs will drop and more humans will go into space – including scientists and researchers, maybe even me or you.
In case you missed it, you can watch the entire launch on Blue Origin’s archived livestream here: