Give Jeff Bezos this: When he builds a rocket, he rides the rocket, strapping his own mortal hide into a seat and test-flying what he’s developed before inviting paying passengers aboard to make the same journey. “If it’s not safe for me, it’s not safe for anyone,” Bezos said in a video segment released by Blue Origin, his private rocket company, before Tuesday morning’s first crewed launch of its New Shepard rocket on a suborbital lob shot that soared to an altitude of 106 km (66 mi.).
Today, the rocket—which had previously flown 15 uncrewed missions to suborbital space—indeed proved safe not just for Bezos, but for the three other passengers aboard with him: Wally Funk, 82, an aviator and flight instructor and now the oldest person to fly in space; Mark Bezos, marketing executive and volunteer firefighter and Jeff Bezos’s brother; and Oliver Daemen, 18, a paying passenger who became the youngest person to fly in space, after his father, the founder of the Dutch hedge fund Somerset Capital Partners, purchased him the seat for an undisclosed multimillion dollar price tag.
The flight, which lifted off from the Texas desert shortly after 8:00 a.m. CT, was, by modern-day standards, a modest affair. It essentially replicated the suborbital flight of the first American in space, Alan Shepard (after whom the rocket is named), which took place just over 60 years ago. In fact, Shepard actually bested Bezos and his crew—at least in terms of altitude, flying to a loftier 187 km [116 miles], easily exceeding the 100 km (62 mi.) Von Karman line, which is the internationally recognized boundary of space. Bezos’ flight just barely cleared that bar.
Still, the machinery on display today was impressive and flew its flight profile faultlessly. The compact 18 m (60-ft.) tall rocket is powered by a single engine, fueled by clean-burning liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen—the same fuel NASA used for the second and third stages of its legendary Saturn V moon rocket. The engine burned for just over two minutes, accelerating the ship to a maximum speed of 3,540 k/h (2,200 mph), and an altitude of roughly 80 km (50 mi.). Twenty seconds later, the crew capsule—which can accommodate up to six people in a roomy 15 cubic m (530 cubic ft) interior—separated from the booster, and continued coasting upward, breaking the Von Karman barrier and affording the crew about four minutes of weightlessness and sightseeing.
The ride down was a free fall for the passengers—subjecting them to a maximum gravitational force of 5.5 g’s—before three small drogue parachutes opened, followed by three main parachutes, slowly lowering the capsule toward the dusty Texas scrubland. About 2 m (six ft.) above ground, a blast of air was released from the bottom of the capsule, providing a cushioning that set the passengers down at a speed of less than 3.2 k/h (2 mph). The rocket itself landed up right on a pad 3.2 km (2 mi.) north of the launch site.
“Best day ever,” Bezos said after the capsule touched down.
For Blue Origin it was indeed a good day—though how soon the company will begin flying commercial passengers able to pay in the low six figures for a 10-minute vacation is unclear. There are only two more crewed flights planned before the end of the year, both of which will be flown by wealthier customers who will compete in an auction for the right to ride—at prices that are expected to reach into the millions. Sir Richard Branson, who beat Bezos to space by nine days aboard his Virgin Galactic VSS Unity space plane, is similarly unclear on how soon his company will at last begin long-delayed commercial flights. Both men insist they are not in competition with each other—never mind the barbs that came out of Blue Origin after Branson’s flight, pointing out that he reached a maximum altitude of only 80 km (50 mi.), a boundary that the U.S. military recognizes as the edge of space, even if the rest of the world doesn’t.
“I know nobody will believe me, but honestly there isn’t [any competition with Bezos],” Branson told NBC’s Today on July 6.
Maybe, but that’s for later. For now, both billionaires have notched big wins—earning their astronaut wings for themselves, and in the process legitimizing their companies’ claims that they have the wherewithal to open a new market for space tourism. Whether enough customers will eventually come is unclear, but the hardware, at least, is ready to fly them.