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 that when the capsule touched down on the desert floor at the end of the 10-minute flight.
Named after America’s first astronaut, Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket lifted off from far west Texas on the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, a date chosen by Bezos for its historical significance. He caught on to it fast, even as Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson spearheads his own flight from New Mexico in the race for space tourist dollars and beats them to space by nine days.
Unlike Branson’s piloted rocket plane, Bezos’s capsule was fully automated and the up-and-down flight required no official personnel on board.
Blue Origin 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.
It took passengers several minutes of weightlessness to float around the giant white capsule. The window-laden capsule descended under a parachute, with Bezos and his guests experiencing nearly 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.
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.
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 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.
“I got goose bumps,” said Angel Herrera after the capsule landed. “The hair on the back of my neck stood up, just watching history.”
Herrera, who lives in El Paso, was one of a few dozen people who watched the launch from inside Van Horn High School, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away.
Blue Origin — founded by Bezos in 2000 in Kent, Washington, near Amazon’s Seattle headquarters — hasn’t disclosed its price for the ride to space. Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said two more passenger flights are planned by the end of the year.
According to company officials, the recycled rocket and capsule carrying Tuesday’s passengers were used in the last two space demonstrations.
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 Alan 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 earlier this month and just last week donated $200 million to the renovation of the National Air and Space Museum. Most of the $28 million from the auction has been distributed to space advocacy and education groups, with the rest benefiting Blue Origin Club for the Future, its own education effort.
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.
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.
“It’s not a competition, it’s about building a road to space so that future generations can do incredible things in space,” he said on NBC’s “Today.”
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.
AP reporter Sean Murphy contributed to this report.
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