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Unless you have been living under a rock, you will no doubt have heard about the recent billionaire space-race plans. After Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic success, Jeff Bezos was launched to the edge of space with a successful return and landing to brag about. He and three others were launched Tuesday morning and landed safely in the Texas desert aboard his Blue Origin space crew capsule. The mission (named NS-16) marked the company’s first crewed flight and will kickstart Blue Origin’s coming commercial service propelling us all into a future where space tourism is a reality. 

The Blue Origin founder ventured up in the suborbital New Shepard rocket’s maiden voyage personally to help promote the safety and viability of the project. Sending what he hopes is a positive signal to prospective space tourists. The company was first founded by the world’s richest man back in 2000, the journey has been a long one but they will soon be open for business.

Beneath the clear skies at its remote launch site in Van Horn, Texas, standing at a height of around six stories’ tall the New Shepard booster blasted off at 9:12 AM ET. The RSS First Step capsule was fixed atop with its gumdrop shape carrying Bezos, his brother Mark, Wally Funk, and Dutch teen Oliver Daemen who traveled in place of his father who secured the winning bid as the first paying customer for space flight. 

Once reaching a peak altitude of 66 miles at three times the speed of sound, the crew’s capsule finally separated from its booster. The curvature of the earth was viewed by the capsule occupants and they all got to experience the expected weightlessness associated with the lack of gravity at that altitude. 

“My main mission was accomplished — I didn’t kick anyone,” Bezos quipped after his capsule touched down. “I was surprised at how easy zero-G was… it was like swimming.”

The NS-16 mission racked itself up more than a few ‘firsts’. It was not only Blue Origins’ first manned flight with the first-ever paying space tourist. Daemen is officially the youngest person to reach space, aged 18, just as Wally Funk, at 82 is now the oldest. Reaching space is said to have been a childhood dream of billionaire Bezos and although he was beaten to it by fellow billionaire Richard Branson aboard his Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo spaceplane on July 11th he is ecstatic nonetheless.

“We went right on up, and I saw darkness,” an elated Funk said about his flight during a post-launch awards ceremony. “I thought I was gonna see the world, but we weren’t quite high enough, and I felt great.”

The crew was shown floating about inside of the capsule’s cabin at peak altitude in a video posted to Instagram and other social media sites. A teenage Daemen was seen upside and Bezos’ with his legs aloft was enjoying the experience. “Who wants Skittles?” Bezos asked, tossing one into Daemen’s mouth.

The discarded booster landed safely on a concrete pad five miles away from its launch. The booster had been given a shelf life of three hauls to space. All in all Blue Origin conducted 15 unmanned test launches beforehand for its New Shepard rocket.

The NS-16 passengers were treated to the same ceremonial rite of passage as anyone else who flies beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Having reached and exceeded the boundary 50 miles up they were awarded their astronaut wings.

At present we have no idea what a seat on a commercial space flight will set you back. The company hasn’t even divulged a ballpark figure as to the price per seat. “We’ll be announcing that later,” Bezos said when asked by The Verge during a photo op at New Shepard’s landing pad how much his company plans to charge per seat. Asked when “later” might be, he replied: “We’re not quite sure yet.”

Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, and Oliver Daemen walk off New Shepard’s landing pad as Wally Funk, the mission’s fourth passenger, remains in awe.
Image credit: theverge.com

As previously mentioned, Daemen’s place on the flight was at the hands of a winning Blue Origin auction bid. Originally an anonymous bidder won with an offer of $28 million, but other commitments meant they couldn’t fly. The mysterious original winning bidder remains undisclosed by Blue Origin and has been rescheduled for a later New Shepard mission. The opportunity was then passed on to Daemen’s father, the founder, and CEO of a Dutch private equity firm. He had bought a seat for New Shepard’s following mission to launch in the fall but was bumped up to the maiden launch instead. He gave the seat to his son, a recent high school graduate.

Up until its successful maiden voyage, New Shepard hosted “astronaut rehearsal” missions with passengers role played by the company executives. They acted out the lead-up to lift off to try and work out logistics and iron out kinks beforehand. “Every mission we’ve conducted so far has been preparing us to put humans on board,” Blue Origin’s NS-16 flight director Steve Lanius told reporters on Sunday.

Image credit: theverge.com

Tuesday’s flight was exactly what Blue Origin needed, the company has stiff competition from the likes of  Elon Musk’s with his SpaceX project. Blue Origin has previously lost out on a contract to SpaceX, they pitched New Glenn, a far bigger larger rocket system to the Air Force for a multibillion-dollar launch. They were also overlooked in favor of the United Launch Alliance. Last April NASA also rejected Blue Origin’s Blue Moon, lunar lander again, opting for one of Musk’s SpaceX’s Starship systems.

We would be amiss if we didn’t mention as Joey Roulette did in his article at The Verge that New Shepard had a somewhat rocky start. This could explain why some have been reluctant to accept patches from Blue Origin. It started early life as a rocket concept dubbed Goddard way back in 2006. Eventually, New Shepherd evolved into a more ambitious project and saw its first launch in 2015. Unfortunately, it failed to land safely at the time. Blue Origins Launch Site One facility is located in Van Horn, West Texas. It is very remote and around 70 miles from the US-Mexico border. Thankfully, further flights for New Shepherd were more successful and Blue Origin went on to send it on its inaugural crewed mission confident enough to put its own founder on board!

“We know the vehicle is safe. If the vehicle is not safe for me, it’s not safe for anyone,” Bezos told CNN in an interview Monday morning. Real-time evaluations with NS-16’s passengers were collected mid-flight by Blue Origin’s engineers. The post-mission data reviewing should provide plenty of additional information that can be used for future flights to help shape the best passenger experience possible. A lot has already been learned from the New Shepard journey and Blue Origin’s other vehicles, New Glenn and Blue Moon among others will benefit from the data reviews and passenger feedback. The future of commercial space travel is an exciting one, without a doubt.

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