Blue Origin successfully launched its first crewed mission into space on Tuesday, carrying four human passengers into orbit, including the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos. The victory of the New Shepard, like that of Virgin Galactic earlier this month, is undeniably heralding the beginning of a new era of space travel.
It is the product of billions of dollars in investment, hundreds of test launches, and some petty feuding among ultra-rich entrepreneurs. It was a media spectacle to say the least. The mission took place at Blue Origin’s Launch Site One; a huge and clandestine complex located about thirty miles north of Van Horn, Texas.
As spectators drove in for the event, every hotel in Van Horn and adjacent towns was sold out of rooms in the days leading up to launch; meanwhile, a swarm of local, national, and internet sources (including yours truly) mobbed the Press Site as early as 2:30 AM CST. Despite some forecasts for rain in the early hours of the morning, the sky remained clear and everything went according to plan.
Around 45 minutes before launch, the four-person crew — Bezos, his brother Mark, 18-year-old student Oliver Daemen, and aviation pioneer and Mercury 13 veteran Wally Funk – exited from the training facility and boarded a Rivian R1S electric SUV to the launch pad. (Bezos drove a Rivian R1T truck to the rocket’s last test landing location, a tribute to Amazon’s significant investment in the electric vehicle company.) The crew ascended the launch tower and took a quick break in a neighboring shelter before boarding the RSS First Step capsule.
A minor halt occurred around T-15 minutes, causing the launch to be slightly behind schedule. At 8:11 a.m. CST, New Shepard took flight. At 8:15 a.m., they crossed the Kármán line (more on that later); capsule separation followed, and at 8:19 a.m., the rocket returned to the launch site independently and with a tremendous boom. The crewed capsule descended slowly to Earth by parachute, coming down at 8:22 a.m. for a total flight length of eleven minutes.
The mission was the culmination of fifteen tests of the reusable suborbital New Shepard rocket, which included a rehearsal launch in April that included a dry run of flight preparations and a dummy crew boarding and disembarking before take-off. Blue Origin has joined Virgin Galactic in a very tiny club of commercial space businesses that are sending private individuals into orbit.
After the anonymous auction winner, who offered $28 million for the seat, had to withdraw due to a schedule difficulty, Daemen added to the crew. According to CNBC, Daemen’s father, CEO of Somerset Capital Partners, a Dutch private equity firm, put the second-highest bid. Daemen, at the age of 18, is the youngest person to go to space, while Funk, at the age of 82, is the oldest.