For Blue Origin, this coming moment has lasted for more than two decades.
The space company, founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos, will launch its first manned mission on Tuesday, July 20, sending the billionaire and three other people into suborbital space aboard a reusable rocket-capsule combination called the New Shepard. Launch is scheduled for 9:00 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT) from Blue Origin Launch Pad One near Van Horn, Texas.
The flight is a major milestone for Blue Origin, which Bezos founded back in September 2000. It marks the company’s official entry into the suborbital space tourism business, as New Shepard’s four passengers include the first paying customer, an 18-year-old Dutchman named Oliver Daeman.
Tuesday will also be a very big day for Bezos himself, and not just for professional reasons. The richest person in the world has repeatedly said that traveling into space is an almost lifelong dream that inspired him when he watched the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 at the age of five. And his own flight is a kind of homage to this epic mission, because it starts exactly 52 years to the day when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took mankind’s first steps on a world beyond earth.
New Shepard takes flight
Blue Origin operated under the radar for years after its inception. The company didn’t really become famous until 2010 when it received a development contract from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
Blue Origin secured another such deal a year later, but NASA ultimately chose SpaceX and Boeing to fly agency astronauts to and from the International Space Station. (SpaceX is in the middle of its third manned mission to the orbit laboratory; Boeing is preparing for an important test flight of its CST-100 Starliner capsule to the station on July 30.)
The company made further headlines in October 2012 with a successful New Shepard pad abortion test in West Texas. The crew pod fired their escape engine and moved away from a missile simulator showcasing technology that could help protect passengers in the event of an emergency during take-off.
Then, in April 2015, New Shepard fled seriously for the first time. The capsule reached a maximum height of 58.1 miles (93.5 kilometers) – higher than the 50-mile (80 km) line recognized by NASA and the US military as the limit of outer space – and parachuted safely back to earth. The missile did not do quite as well and crashed while attempting to land.
Seven months later, the next iteration of New Shepard flew even higher, reaching about 100.6 km above the West Texas bushland. And this time, both the capsule and the rocket have mastered their landings – an important milestone that inspired a competitive back and forth between Bezos and SpaceX boss Elon Musk. (SpaceX managed to land the first stage of its Falcon 9 orbital rocket just weeks later, an accomplishment Musk’s company has repeated dozens of times since then.)
In January 2016, the same New Shepard vehicle flew into suborbital space again, in another landmark moment of reusability.
And the test flights continued. So far, four New Shepard vehicles have embarked on 15 suborbital missions, the last 14 of which have been completely successful. This hit streak convinced Bezos and the rest of the Blue Origin team that New Shepard is ready to move people – and that Bezos should be among the first to fly.
Billionaires take off
Blue Origin announced in early May that New Shepard’s first manned mission would start on July 20 and the company would auction one of the seats. (In another nod to history, the announcement was made on May 5th, the 60th anniversary of the first American manned spaceflight, the suborbital expedition of NASA astronaut and New Shepard namesake Alan Shepard.)
A month later, Bezos announced that he and his brother Mark would be on the flight – news that seriously discouraged the auction, which was won by an as-yet-nameless $ 28 million bidder. (That bidder later withdrew from the flight due to scheduling conflicts, according to Blue Origin; his place was taken by Daemen.)
Then, on July 1st, Blue Origin announced that the groundbreaking aviator Wally Funk would also be on the flight. The 82-year-old is one of the “Mercury 13” women who passed the same physiological screening tests that NASA subjected its astronauts to in the early days of the space age. Neither of these women was seriously considered as an astronaut candidate at the time; American manned space travel was a purely male affair until 1983, when Sally Ride launched into orbit aboard the Challenger space shuttle.
Funk will be the oldest person to ever reach space when New Shepard takes off on July 20, breaking the record of the then 77-year-old John Glenn during a space shuttle mission in October 1998. And Daeman will also set a record. the youngest space flier of all time.
On the same day that Blue Origin announced Funk’s involvement, the company’s main competitor in suborbital space tourism, Virgin Galactic, came out with its own bomb: it was planning to launch its first fully manned space flight on July 11, and the Billionaire Virgin Group founder Richard Branson would be on board.
That news – and the actual flight, which went well – stole some of Bezos’ thunder. But now it’s Blue Origin’s turn in the spotlight.
If everything goes according to plan on Tuesday, New Shepard could go into full commercial operation in the coming weeks or months. Virgin Galactic aims to do the same after a few more test flights in early 2022 so that a true suborbital space tourism industry could finally hit the ground. (Virgin Galactic was founded in 2004.)
But Blue Origin’s ambitions go well beyond suborbital space. The company is also developing a giant reusable rocket called the New Glenn, designed to launch people and payloads into Earth orbit, with a debut flight expected in 2022.
Blue Origin is also working on a lunar lander and heads The National Team, a private consortium that proposed a human landing system for NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program. In April of this year, NASA selected SpaceX’s Starship as the Artemis-crewed lander, but the national team and another unselected finalist, Dynetics, filed protests with the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which is expected to make a decision on the matter early August.
Blue Origin’s long-term goals are even bolder. The company’s aim is to help humanity become a truly space-friendly species while protecting our home planet.
“Blue Origin was founded by Jeff Bezos with the vision of enabling a future in which millions of people in space live and work to help the earth,” says part of the company’s vision. “To preserve the earth, Blue Origin believes that humanity must expand, explore, find new energy and material resources, and move industries that are polluting the earth into space.”
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