Amazon.com and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos and his three crewmates have successfully landed after embarking on a mission 20 years in the making.
On Tuesday, Bezos, his brother, Mark Bezos, veteran pilot Wally Funk and Dutch student Oliver Daemen blasted off on a 10-minute suborbital flight on board the New Shepard rocket in a giant leap forward for commercial space travel.
The flight is a huge milestone for Blue Origin, which was founded by Bezos in 2000, as Tuesday’s launch marked the first time one of the company’s New Shepard spacecraft carried people.
Following liftoff from its launch site in West Texas in the United States, the craft climbed above the Earth, crossing the official boundary of space.
Bezos and the other passengers experienced about three minutes of weightlessness and stunning views through what the company boasts are the largest windows ever built on a space capsule.
After free-floating briefly, the crew strapped into their seats once more before plunging back into the lower atmosphere and parachuting down to land.
The flight was full of other firsts: at 82, Funk is the oldest person ever to fly in space, and at 18, Daemen is the youngest.
‘Wow, wow, wow’
The crew donned their special blue suits and climbed into the New Shepard crew capsule 45 minutes before blasting off into space. The team did official communications checks to make sure each passenger could chat with mission control and was safely strapped in.
From there it was all business as the minutes ticked away to liftoff. The rocket leaped off the pad right on time and began the climb to space.
Following separation from the crew capsule, which kept ascending, the rocket returned to Earth, bearing some new scorch marks from its trip through the atmosphere.
Jubilant cheers erupted from the New Shepard capsule as Bezos and his fellow passengers crossed the Karman line – the official boundary to space.
“Wow, wow, wow,” passengers could be heard saying as they glimpsed space for the first time.
“It’s so dark up here,” said Wally Funk as the crew took in views of the Earth and the blackness of space.
“You have a very happy crew up here,” Jeff Bezos radioed down as the four passengers floated through the cabin.
With its passengers strapped back in, the capsule began its descent through the atmosphere before landing gently in the Texas desert. When the door opened, Funk emerged with her arms raised in victory.
“We’re so thankful to everyone who made this happen,” Jeff Bezos said as he stepped out of the capsule.
Bezos has been open about his fascination with space from a young age, saying that the Apollo moon landing changed his life and inspired him to pursue space travel.
In a tribute to that mission, Blue Origin launched on the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing – July 20.
Bezos also named his New Shepard rocket after the first American to fly into space, Alan Shepard.
On the 60th anniversary of Shepard’s mission in May, Bezos announced that the final seat on Tuesday’s flight was up for grabs in an auction.
The winning bid came in at $28m, however, the anonymous winner chose to reschedule for a future flight.
Bezos subsequently selected Daemen, who was a runner-up in the auction, as the fourth crew member. The company has not disclosed the amount of his bid.
Bezos had previously announced he had tapped Funk for the flight. A trailblazing aviator, she trained as an astronaut in NASA’s Women in Space programme in the early 1960s.
Although she passed all of the tests that NASA’s original group of astronauts went through, she was denied the chance of becoming an astronaut due to her gender.
Now, Funk has achieved her dream and broken US astronaut John Glenn’s record as the oldest person to fly to space. (Glenn was 77 in 1998 when he flew on the space shuttle Discovery.)
Fly me to the Karman line
According to company officials, the team successfully completed a “flight readiness review” for the launch over the weekend and both the New Shepard rocket and capsule were found to be ready to fly. Weather officials also said that the forecast looked promising for Tuesday’s launch.
“It’s thrilling to get to this day, and I’m so proud of Team Blue,” Bob Smith, Blue Origin’s CEO, told Al Jazeera ahead of the launch. “After 15 flights of New Shepard, we are ready to fly our first crew, including our first paying customer, Oliver Daemen.”
Steve Lanius, the lead flight director for Tuesday’s mission, said that each of the passengers also completed 14 hours of flight training prior to launch day.
“Our training programme is completely FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] compliant for crew and spaceflight participants,” Lanius told Al Jazeera. “It consists of 14 hours over a two-day span and consists of classroom instruction, demonstrations and practice in the training capsule.”
All participants were instructed in normal procedures, what to do in an emergency and how to safely return to their seats while in zero gravity. The training culminated in five different training scenarios as well as a final exam, Lanius said, with participants receiving the green light for launch only after their final reports were reviewed.
The experience was sure to be a memorable one. The rocket is designed to separate from the spacecraft and return to Earth, where it touched down on a designated landing pad at Blue Origin’s facilities.
Meanwhile, the New Shepard capsule treated its passengers to breathtaking views of the Earth as they experienced weightlessness and floated about the cabin.
After about three minutes, the crew members strapped back into their seats and prepared for landing. They were subjected to roughly 5Gs of force as the spacecraft travelled through the atmosphere.
With the first flight going smoothly, Blue Origin hopes it will mark the first of many, as the firm has at least two more crewed flights planned for this year.
Blue Origin has not disclosed pricing for any of its upcoming flights, but according to Smith, the plan is to follow whatever price the market will bear, which could very well exceed $1m.
But, Smith said, “the early flights are going for a good price”.
With the success of this first flight, Blue Origin’s human spaceflight programme is now officially open for business.
First published on: Al Jazeera