VAN HORN, Tex. — Jeff Bezos rocketed past the edge of space Tuesday, launching from the improbable spaceport he has built in the West Texas desert here and fulfilling the lifelong dream of a die-hard Trekkie who was transfixed by the Apollo 11 moon landing and has pledged to use his fortune to open space for the masses.
Lifting off at 9:12 a.m. Eastern time, the New Shepard rocket that Bezos’s Blue Origin space venture has been developing for years carried one of the most unusual astronaut crews ever to depart Earth. In addition to Bezos, on board the capsule were Bezos’s brother, Mark; Wally Funk, an 82-year-old aviation pioneer, and Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old student from the Netherlands who lucked into the flight when the winner of an auction for the fourth seat had to postpone. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The launch set a record for both the oldest and youngest person to fly to space and came nine days after Richard Branson flew on a similar suborbital trajectory. The back-to-back launches amounted to yet another sign of space exploration’s modern renaissance, a movement that is being fueled not by nations but by a surging commercial space industry backed by billionaires.
Bezos said Tuesday Blue Origin is approaching $100 million in sales of seats on future flights.
As space travel goes, Blue Origin’s flight was a modest, up-and-down, suborbital jaunt, just over 66.5 miles high, a mere toe dip in the vastness of the cosmos that lasted just over 10 minutes from launch to landing. But for Blue Origin, which Bezos founded in 2000, it marked a significant milestone — the company’s first human spaceflight — and a statement that it was staking a claim in a modern space race that has been dominated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Last month, Bezos, 57, announced he would be on the flight, a move that surprised few who know Bezos’s passion for space. Blue Origin, he has said, is “the most important work I’m doing.” Now that Bezos has stepped down as CEO of Amazon, many in the space industry expect him to dedicate more of his time to his space venture, which has large ambitions but has lagged behind its competitors.
It is fighting to win a piece of a major NASA contract to fly astronauts to the moon, for example, a major program in which Bezos has taken a personal interest. He watched the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, a “seminal” moment for him, he says, that touched off a lifelong passion for space exploration. He grew up devouring science fiction and watching reruns of “Star Trek.” He loved the show so much that he named his dog Kamala, and the lobby of Blue Origin’s headquarters, just south of Seattle, is outfitted with all sorts of space artifacts, including a rocket ship model, shaped like a bullet, inspired by Jules Verne.
Amazon, he has said, was the winning “lottery ticket” that allowed him to fund Blue Origin to the tune of $1 billion a year.
During an event after the flight that had been billed as a news conference but where only three questions were asked, Bezos said, “I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all of this.”
He said his expectations for the flight “were high, and they were dramatically exceeded.”
“The zero G piece may have been one of the biggest surprises because it felt so normal,” he said. “It felt almost like as humans we have evolved to be in that environment, which I know is impossible, but it felt so serene and nice and peaceful.”
Bezos said the crew brought a number of items of historical significance on the flight: a piece of canvas from the Wright Flyer, the airplane flown by the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903 for the first powered flight; a bronze medallion made from the first hot air balloon ever to fly in 1783; and a pair of goggles that Amelia Earhart wore when she flew across the Atlantic Ocean solo.
Funk said she had a wonderful time on board the spacecraft, and during a video from when the crew reached space, she could be seen rising weightless out of her seat. The crew brought ping-pong balls that they floated around the capsule, and at one point, Bezos could be heard yelling, “Who wants a Skittle?” They then took turns trying to throw the candies into each other’s mouths.
“I loved it,” Funk said. “The four of us, we had such a great time. It was wonderful. I want to go again.” She added that she only “wished it had been longer” and said that at times the capsule was a bit tight to have everyone doing somersaults and rolls at once. “There was not quite enough room for all four of us to do all those things,” she said.
New Shepard is named for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, who flew on a suborbital trajectory during the Mercury program in 1961. Shepard’s launch carried him to an altitude of 116 miles and lasted more than 15 minutes. Shepard’s daughters were on hand to witness the flight. Bezos said that he was “honored” to have them there and that it was a privilege to honor him and the early days of the space program.
For Bezos, the journey to this day began in the early 2000s, when he started quietly acquiring hundreds of thousands of acres in West Texas, purchasing the land under corporate entities named for explorers. There was Joliet Holdings and Cabot Enterprises, the James Cook and William Clark Partnerships and Coronado Ventures.
All were linked to a Seattle firm called Zefram LLC, named for Zefram Cochrane, another character in the “Star Trek” franchise. As he was scouting the land in 2003, a helicopter carrying Bezos crashed in a creek, flooding the cabin with water before Bezos and his companions could escape.
“It was harrowing,” he later told The Post. “We were very lucky. I can’t believe we all walked away from it.”
His flight Tuesday was far smoother. The rocket fired its engines for nearly 2½ minutes, powering the capsule to about Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound. The capsule then separated, allowing the four-member crew to float around and take in views of the Earth below and the galaxy beyond through what the Blue Origin touts as the largest windows ever to fly in space.
Once it hit apogee, or the high point, the capsule fell back toward the Texas desert, touching down softly under three parachutes. The more aerodynamically shaped booster beat the capsule back to the ground by a couple of minutes, landing on a pad after reigniting its engine to slow down.
Bezos was first to exit the capsule, wearing a cowboy hat and hugging his mother. Friends and family members swarmed the newly minted astronauts as they emerged, popping champagne and having a celebration next to the capsule on the desert floor. “I wasn’t that nervous but my family was somewhat anxious about this,” Bezos said after the flight.
It was not only Bezos’s dream to fly to space, but Funk’s as well. In the early 1960s, she was selected to be part of the Mercury 13, a group of women who went through a privately funded program designed to mimic the NASA training for John Glenn and the rest of the Mercury 7. Ultimately the program was canceled, and none of the women were selected as part of the astronaut corps.
Funk went on to have a pioneering career as an aviator, spending nearly 20,000 hours flying all sorts of aircraft. She was the first female inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration and the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.
The last seat on the flight was supposed to go to the winner of an auction. The winner, who remains anonymous, paid $28 million for the right to fly alongside Bezos, but Blue Origin announced last week the person could not make it because of “scheduling conflicts.”
That paved the way for Daemen, who is planning to enroll in college in the Netherlands this fall. Blue Origin has declined to say how much Daemen, whose father runs an investment firm, paid for the flight. But the company said he was scheduled to go on Blue Origin’s second launch after participating in the auction but was bumped up when the auction winner postponed.
Bezos invited his brother, Mark, a philanthropist who has worked as a volunteer firefighter in suburban New York, to join the crew as well.
Blue Origin has not yet announced how much it would charge the public for future flights on New Shepard. It has said it was offering premium prices for the first flights to those who participated in the auction, and it said on its live stream before Tuesday’s launch that it was receiving many orders.
A suborbital space tourism business, though, is only one of the many programs Blue Origin is pursuing as it works toward Bezos’s long-term vision of a future where there are “millions of people living and working in space.”
It is developing a much larger and more powerful rocket, called New Glenn, that would be capable of lifting large masses to orbit. It also has partnered with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper to develop a spacecraft capable of ferrying astronauts to and from the surface of the moon.
It won the first round of NASA’s contract. But earlier this year, NASA awarded SpaceX a $3 billion contract for the first lunar landing mission under the space agency’s Artemis program. NASA says it will offer a competition for future moon missions, but Blue Origin has protested the contract award to the Government Accountability Office. That decision is due in a couple of weeks and could continue to fuel the competition between Musk and Bezos, who over the years have sparred over their achievements in space.
Blue Origin also recently took a shot at Virgin Galactic after Branson announced he would move up his flight and reach space before Bezos.
But Bezos ended up wishing his rival well. During an event in 2016, he said: “Competition is super healthy. … And space is really big. There is room for a lot of winners.”
At Blue Origin, “our biggest opponent is gravity,” he added. “The physics of this problem are challenging enough. … Gravity is not watching us and saying, ‘Uh-oh, those Blue Origin guys are getting really good. I’m going to have to increase my gravitational constant.’ Gravity doesn’t care about us at all.”