by Marcia Dunn
VAN HORN, Texas (AP) — Jeff Bezos blasted into space with people on the first flight of his rocket company on Tuesday, becoming the second billionaire in just over a week to ride his own spacecraft.
The Amazon founder was accompanied by a hand-picked group: his brother, an 18-year-old from the Netherlands, and an 82-year-old aviation pioneer from Texas—the youngest and oldest to fly in space.
“Best day ever!” Bezos said when the capsule landed on the desert floor in far west Texas after a 10-minute flight.
Named after America’s first astronaut, Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket lifts off on the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, a date chosen by Bezos for its historical significance. Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson piloted his own flight from New Mexico and beat him in space for nine days.
However, two private companies chasing space tourism dollars have drawn criticism for catering to the wealthy, while many are struggling amid the pandemic.
During Tuesday’s flight, Blue Origin’s capsule reached an altitude of about 66 miles (106 kilometers), which is 10 miles (16 kilometers) higher than Branson’s July 11 ride. The 60-foot (18-m) booster accelerated to Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound, to achieve a sufficiently high speed, before detaching the capsule and landing straight.
Unlike Branson’s piloted rocket plane, Bezos’s capsule was fully automated and the up-and-down flight required no official personnel on board.
During their several minutes of weightlessness, the four in the video swim from inside the capsule, doing somersaults, tossing Skittles candies and throwing balls, “Whoa!” The Bezos brothers also joined their palms to display the greeting “HI MOM” written on their hands. The capsule descended by parachute, with Bezos and his guests experiencing about six times the force of gravity, or 6G, on the way back.
Led by Bezos, they exited the capsule after touchdown with wide grins, hugged parents, partners and children, then popped open bottles of sparkling wine, splashing each other.
“My expectations were very high and they were dramatically exceeded,” Bezos later said.
His flight lasted 10 minutes and 10 seconds – five minutes away from Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 flight in 1961. Shepard’s daughters, Laura and Julie, were introduced at a press event a few hours later.
Sharing the thrill of Bezos’s dreams coming true was Dallas-area Wally Funk, one of 13 female pilots who went through the same tests as NASA’s all-male astronaut corps in the early 1960s, but Never made it into space.
“I’ve been waiting a long time to finally get it there,” Funk said.
“I want to go again – fast,” she said.
Joining him on Ultimate Joyride was the company’s first paying customer, Oliver Damon, a last-minute fill-in for the mystery winner of the $28 million charity auction, who opted for the latter flight. The Dutch teen’s father took part in the auction, and last week agreed to a lower undisclosed price when Blue Origin offered his son a vacant seat.
“It was so amazing,” Damon said. “Let’s hope that many, many more people can do this.”
Four hours after his flight, Bezos sent his crew off to see the rocket that took them safely into space.
Among the items brought on the flight: a pair of aviator Amelia Earhart glasses and a piece of cloth from the original Wright Flyer.
“I found goose bumps,” said El Paso’s Angel Herrera, who witnessed the launch from inside Van Horn High School, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away. “The hair on the back of my neck stood up, just watching history. “
There is no rush to buy tickets from this deserted and deserted city.
“The ride is only for the wealthy,” pizza shop owner Jesus Ramirez said after witnessing the launch, adding that he hopes the venture will attract businesses to the city and provide opportunities for local companies.
Blue Origin — founded by Bezos in 2000 in Kent, Washington, near Amazon’s Seattle headquarters — hasn’t disclosed its price for a ride to space, but has drawn up spots for other auction bidders. Bezos said ticket sales, including the auction, are approaching $100 million. Two more flights are planned by the end of the year.
The recycled rocket and capsule used on Tuesday flew on the last two space demonstrations, according to company officials.
Virgin Galactic already has more than 600 reservations for over $250,000. Founded by Branson in 2004, the company has sent crews into space four times and plans two more test flights from New Mexico before launching to customers next year.
Blue Origin’s approach was slower and more deliberate. After 15 successful empty test flights in space since 2015, Bezos finally announced it was time to put people on board. The Federal Aviation Administration agreed last week, approving the commercial space license.
Bezos, 57, who also owns The Washington Post, claimed the first seat. Next went to his 50-year-old brother, Mark Bezos, an investor and volunteer firefighter, then Funk and Damon. They spent two days together in training.
Space historian Jordan Bimm of the University of Chicago said that the passenger makeup is indeed remarkable. Imagine if the head of NASA decided he wanted to launch on the first American spacecraft in 1961 instead of Shepard, he said in an email.
“That would have been unimaginable!” Bim said. “It shows how ideas for who and what place have changed over the past 60 years.”
Bezos stepped down as Amazon CEO this month and last week donated $200 million to the renovation of the National Air and Space Museum.
Fewer than 600 people have reached the edge of space or beyond. As of Tuesday, the youngest was 25-year-old Soviet cosmonaut German Titov and the oldest was Mercury shuttle cosmonaut John Glenn, 77.
Both Bezos and Branson want to drastically increase those overall numbers, as has SpaceX’s Elon Musk, who, with the first flight arriving in September, is skipping brief space hops and directing tens of millions of people to their private customers. sending to class.
“We are going to build a road to space so that our children and their children can build the future,” Bezos said. “We need to do this to solve problems here on Earth.”
Despite appearances, Bezos and Branson insist they weren’t trying to outdo each other. Bezos noted this week that only one person can claim to be the first in space: Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who rocketed into orbit on April 12, 1961.
Branson sent out a congratulatory tweet: “Impressive! Best wishes to all the crew from me and the entire team at Virgin Galactic.
Blue Origin is working on a giant rocket, New Glenn, to put payloads and people into orbit from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The company wants to bring astronauts back to the Moon with its proposed lunar lander Blue Moon; It is challenging NASA’s only contract award to SpaceX.
The many people Bezos thanked on Tuesday included “every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer. Because you guys paid for all of this.” Bezos has said that he finances The Rocket Company by selling $1 billion in Amazon stock every year.
AP journalists Sean Murphy in Van Horn and Candice Choi in New York contributed to this report.
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