Blue Origin’s first crewed flight sends Wally Funk to edge of space after 60-year wait

Jeff Bezos, the 57-year-old ex-Amazon CEO and founder of space tourism company Blue Origin, finally has his astronaut wings. Under the picturesque dawn sky of the West Texas desert, a New Shepard rocket roared to life, 52 years to the day since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin pressed their boot prints into the moon. 

Atop the rocket, locked inside a gumdrop-shaped capsule, Bezos, his brother Mark, aeronautics legend Wally Funk and 18-year-old customer Oliver Daemen headed off toward the invisible, arbitrary boundary separating Earth and space as part of mission NS-16. Approximately 3 minutes after lift off, the crew experienced weightlessness for the first time and touched the edge of space. Hoots and hollers erupted from the cabin and staticy calls of, “that’s awesome,” permeated the live broadcast. 

In that fleeting moment, they joined an exclusive new club for “commercial astronauts” which, prior to the mission, numbered only 10. The total number of people who’ve been to space is just 570. Both lists now count two Bezos brothers, a Funk and a Daemen in their ranks.

The four-person crew unbuckled from their seats after the New Shepard rocket lifted their capsule beyond the stratosphere. The capsule reached a peak altitude — or apogee — of around 66 miles (approximately 106 kilometers) into the sky. And then, almost as quickly as it went up, it began its quick descent back to solid ground. 

Simultaneously, the New Shepard rocket that had carried the capsule to the edge of infinity was calmly falling back to Earth. It touched down gently in the West Texas desert about 7 minutes after lift-off. 

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The crew of NS-16, the first crewed flight for Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. (L-R) Mark Bezos, Jeff Bezos, Oliver Daemen, Wally Funk.


Blue Origin

At approximately 8 minutes and 30 seconds after flight, the capsule’s parachutes deployed and brought the capsule safely to land.

“I am unbelievably good,” Bezos said after touchdown, responding to a check by CapCom. “Best. Day. Ever.”

The historic feat comes just 11 days after Richard Branson’s successful flight on the Virgin Galactic spaceplane back on July 9

While much has been made of Bezos’ journey — and, sure, he bankrolled the endeavour — but it was a truly momentous occasion for 82-year-old Mary “Wally” Funk, who had been dreaming of going to space for longer than Bezos has been alive. Funk volunteered to take part in the privately funded Women in Space Program in the 1960s, undergoing the same physiological assessments as America’s first male astronauts. But she never got to fly. The program was canned in 1962 and Funk’s space dreams were put on hold. Today, she became the oldest person to visit space.

Sitting next to her on the journey, but on the other side of the generational gap, was 18-year-old Oliver Daemen. His father, owner of a Dutch private equity firm, placed a bid to nab a seat on New Shepard, but pulled out as the value crept up. When the as-yet-unannounced winner of the auction pulled out due to “scheduling conflicts,” Daemen got the call up. 

Parachutes deploying on the crew capsule.


Blue Origin

The edge of infinity

In the lead up to launch, there had been some frosty back and forth between Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

The latter company took its billionaire founder to a height of 53 miles (86 kilometers) 11 days ago, earning Branson his own pair of commercial astronaut wings. However, Blue Origin made a slightly snarky tweet about where space actually begins and seemed to suggest that perhaps Branson hadn’t reached “space” after all. 

“Only 4% of the world recognizes a lower limit of 80 kilometers or 50 miles as the beginning of space. New Shepard flies above both boundaries. One of the many benefits of flying with Blue Origin” the company said on July 9

Wherever the boundary is set, the experience of being up there didn’t differ all that much for the two billionaires and the bickering was largely left behind in the lead up to the launch.

What about Earth?

Speaking on NBC’s Today prior to launch, Bezos made note of the criticism that both he and Branson had used their vast wealth to get off the Earth exactly when vast wealth is needed to combat some of the planet’s greatest problems. 

“Of course people said, ‘Look we have so many problems here on Earth,’ and they’re right,” Bezos said. “And we need to do both, and we’ve always done both.”

“We need to focus on the here and now, and we need to look to the future, so we’re building a road to space so that Oliver’s generation can blow us away with amazing things and make life better here on Earth.”

Touchdown!


Blue Origin

Both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin plan to conduct science in sub-orbit. The companies will allow researchers to send payloads into microgravity, which would allow brief experiments to take place. As launch cadence increases and more and more flights become available, the repeated access to microgravity could be a more cost-effective way to test things like gravitational biology and fluid physics than sending payloads to the International Space Station. 

And will the experience itself, gazing upon the curvature of the Earth from high above the ground, change the billionaires? 

“I am hopeful that the new era of space tourism will mean the rich and powerful can see the Earth from orbit, experiencing a profound shift in perspective as they see the fragility of our blue marble suspended in the void,” says Alan Duffy, an astrophysicist from Swinburne University and lead scientist at the Royal Institution of Australia.

What’s next for the billionaire space race?

It’s unlikely we’ll see Branson or Bezos flying again any time soon (though there’s a chance Musk could do it), but now a new race begins: Which billionaire’s space tourism company can get the first crew of paying customers to the edge of space? 

Ticket prices are far too high for the majority of people to afford, though Virgin Galactic has reportedly around 600 customers lined up, including Musk and Funk. Before closing ticket sales in 2014 due to a fatal crash, a seat on its spaceplane was selling for up to $250,000. 

Bezos and Blue Origin have yet to announce the price of a seat on New Shepard but, with the first crewed flight a success, it won’t be long before we find out.

It seems Virgin Galactic has its nose in front here, though it has said it will conduct two more flights before putting people into space. But you can count the number of successful flights for Galactic on one hand, whereas Bezos’s Blue Origin now has 16 up-and-down joyrides on its ledger. Before the space tourism sector really blasts off, safety and consistency will be key to ensuring customers are willing to climb aboard the rockets. 

Blue Origin has two more flights planned for this year but have not revealed when they are scheduled to take place.

But this is really the very, very beginning of commercial space travel. We haven’t even mentioned Musk’s SpaceX yet. In September, 38-year-old billionaire businessman Jared Isaacman is boarding a Crew Dragon capsule, atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, to blast into orbit for three days. Then there’s Yusaku Maezawa, the Japanese entrepreneur who has announced he will take eight artists on a trip around the moon in a SpaceX Starship in 2023. Before that, though, he’s heading to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft

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