VAN HORN, Texas — Near a small town in the West Texas desert, a quartet led by the world’s richest person is preparing to launch on a historic flight to the edge of space.
After 15 successful test flights without people on board, Blue Origin is set to put its spacecraft to the ultimate test: Its first human spaceflight. On Tuesday, the company plans to send Bezos, his brother Mark, aerospace pioneer Wally Funk and Dutch teenager Oliver Daemen to the edge of space, to float in microgravity for a couple minutes, and return safely.
Bezos’ company is just one of many of a 21st-century generation of ventures in a new space race — one driven primarily by investors, rather than solely by superpower governments.
He’s also one of several billionaires pouring funds into companies, with Bezos going head-to-head with Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson in the growing space industry. Like them, Bezos’ vision for his company stretches beyond launching wealthy passengers on spaceflight joyrides. Blue Origin’s mission is to create “a future where millions of people are living and working in space to benefit Earth,” and Bezos sees Tuesday’s flight as the next step toward achieving that goal.
Here is what you should know about the crew, the rocket launching them, what the experience is expected to be like, and the high profile but still small market for space tourists.
Four people will fly as Blue Origin’s first ever crew: Jeff Bezos, Mark Bezos, Wally Funk, and Oliver Daemen.
His Amazon reputation preceding him, the 57-year-old Bezos hardly needs introduction. But his connection to, and passion for, spaceflight does. The e-commerce mogul grew up inspired by the Apollo lunar landings, and was heavily influenced by the teachings of space visionary Gerard O’Neill while studying at Princeton.
Bezos has spent the majority of his time in the past two decades focused on Amazon, but along the way has steadily sold shares of the tech giant to fund Blue Origin’s development — to the tune of $1 billion a year or possibly more. Earlier this month, Bezos stepped down from his role as Amazon’s CEO, with many in the space industry expecting him to spend more time focusing on Blue Origin’s development. Beyond its New Shepard rocket, the company is developing the orbital New Glenn rocket, a stable of rocket engines, and a crewed lunar lander.
When checking out Blue Origin’s progress in the desert, Bezos is typically seen in a cowboy hat and boots — seemingly clashing with his more well known appearance as a sharp-dressed business magnate. But, while his outfits are more in line with the rural rancher scene, his space company’s gleaming rocketry is a sharp contrast. Blue Origin’s facilities can be seen from miles away on the highway that cuts through the valley, and the company’s clean white spacecraft jut out even more starkly.
Mark Bezos, age 53 and Jeff’s younger brother, was the second announced passenger for the first human flight. A volunteer firefighter residing in Scarsdale, New York, Mark Bezos said in a Blue Origin video that he “wasn’t even expecting” his brother “to be on the first flight,” let alone himself as well.
Wally Funk is a female aviation pioneer and, at 82, will become the oldest person to fly in space. She’s dreamed about flying to space longer than any of the other passengers have been alive — having been one of the so-called “Mercury 13,” a group of women who passed the same tests as NASA’s Mercury astronauts, only to never get a chance to fly to space.
Her aviation career is legendary — the first female civilian flight instructor at the U.S. Army’s Fort Sill, first female Federal Aviation Administration flight inspector, first female National Transportation Safety Board air safety investigator — and has logged more than 19,000 flight hours along the way.
The fourth and final member of the inaugural crew is 18-year-old Oliver Daemen. A last-minute addition to the group, Daemen takes the place of an anonymous person who bid $28 million for the last seat on this flight in a public auction last month. But, while the mystery bidder knew the spaceflight was scheduled for July 20 even before the auction began, Blue Origin says the person could not make the flight “due to scheduling conflicts” and is instead deferring to a later launch.
Daemen’s father Joes, the CEO of a private equity firm in the Netherlands, was a bidder in the public auction who Blue Origin said “had secured a seat on the second flight,” even though he hadn’t won the auction. But, when the mystery bidder backed out, the company “moved him up,” a Blue Origin spokesperson told CNBC.
The rocket and capsule
New Shepard stands 60 feet tall, and both the rocket booster and the capsule on top are reusable. Blue Origin first tested the capsule in October 2012 and the rocket booster in April 2015 — the latter test being the only time the booster did not land successfully after a test flight.
The rocket is powered by a single liquid-fueled BE-3 engine, generating 110,000 pound feet of thrust at sea level and able to throttle down to less than 20% power for its slow, soft landings.
The capsule is designed to carry up to six passengers, although the first crew will feature just four. Fully autonomous, there is no human pilot on board during the launches. It is pressurized, with a climate control system, and has the largest windows that have flown in space to date. The capsule’s seats have a single-release five-point harness and, for additional safety in the event of an emergency, its own escape motor that can fire at any point just before and during the launch, to quickly jettison the crew away from the rocket.
Blue Origin currently has two New Shepard rocket boosters in rotation, NS3 and NS4, with the former used for cargo flights and the latter for crewed flights.
Blue Origin will provide a live online broadcast of the launch, as it has for past test flights. But, while the facility’s remote location is enough to deter most prospective onlookers, the company emphasized in a pre-launch briefing on Sunday that Texas law enforcement will close part of the nearby state highway. There will be no public viewing areas for the launch, in contrast to the crowds of up to hundreds of thousands who flock to the Florida coast for NASA’s astronaut launches.
The company’s webcast is scheduled to begin at 7:30 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, with liftoff expected at 9:00 a.m. EDT. However, prior launches have had holds that delayed the launch by anywhere from a few minutes to about an hour, most often for weather or technical checks.
Blue Origin’s crew is scheduled to climb in the capsule half an hour before launch. About 20 minutes after the hatch closes, mission control will give the final all clear and then fire the rocket’s engine. New Shepard will steadily accelerate to more than three times the speed of sound and, after detaching from the booster, the capsule is expected to reach an altitude of more than 340,000 feet (or over 100 kilometers).
The 100 kilometers altitude is commonly called the Karman line, although the U.S. recognizes a lower boundary of 80 kilometers as the edge of space — and therefore, those who cross that mark are recognized by the government as astronauts. The disputed boundary of space has become a point of competitive contention between Bezos’ Blue Origin and Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Although the latter’s spacecraft reaches above 80 kilometers, it has yet to break the 100 kilometer mark — a difference Blue Origin has emphasized.
Branson, for his part, does not seem bothered by the comparison — likely because, eight days ago, he became the first billionaire space company founder to launch into space.
New Shepard will then spend a couple minutes floating in microgravity, with the passengers then floating freely about the capsule.
Meanwhile, New Shepard’s rocket booster will be on its way back to Earth. The booster will guide itself back in to attempt to land on a concrete pad near where it launched from, firing its engine to slow down and extending a set of four legs to touch down.
The capsule, with the passengers expected to strap back in, will return to Earth in a free fall at first, before deploying a set of parachutes. When it’s just a few feet above the ground, the capsule’s thrusters will then fire briefly to soften its impact with the desert.
After the capsule lands, Blue Origin trucks will drive out across the desert to open the hatch and let the passengers out.
The nascent space tourism market
Blue Origin announced in April that it planned to begin selling tickets for future rides on New Shepard. But months later — despite the company saying members of the recent public auction have made purchases, with Daemen the first of those to ride — Blue Origin has yet to reveal how much it is charging for tickets. The special auction-inflated price of $28 million a ticket is so far the only public indication.
The company’s only direct competition in the market of launching space tourists to the edge of space is Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, a sector known as suborbital tourism. SpaceX is preparing to launch its first private mission in September, called Inspiration4, but Elon Musk’s company sends its capsules further into space on multi-day flights, in what is known as orbital tourism.
Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have been developing rocket-powered spacecraft, but that is where the similarities end. While Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket launches vertically from the ground, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo system is released mid-air and returns to Earth in a glide for a runway landing, like an aircraft.
And, while Blue Origin launches autonomously, Virgin Galactic system is flown by two pilots. Branson’s company has flown four test spaceflights to date, but does not expect to begin flying paying customers until 2022.
Blue Origin’s auction may have netted $28 million, but a seat on a suborbital spacecraft is typically much less expensive. Virgin Galactic has historically sold reservations between $200,000 and $250,000 per ticket, and more recently charged the Italian Air Force about $500,000 per ticket for a training spaceflight.
Musk’s orbital missions are more costly than the suborbital flights, with NASA paying SpaceX about $55 million per seat for spaceflights to the International Space Station.
The tourism market is a nascent slice of the more than $420 billion space economy. Yet its high profile — given the much more thrilling human element — means it has a powerful and widespread influence over the space industry, with investors often pointing to astronaut flights as driving excitement about the broader implications of the extraterrestrial marketplace.