On Tuesday, Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, flew 66.5 miles (107 kilometers) above the Texas desert on his business Blue Origin’s New Shepard launch vehicle and safely returned to Earth, marking the start of a new age of private commercial space tourism.
“Best day ever,” Bezos exclaimed after the spaceship landed in the desert, bringing up a cloud of dust.
The 57-year-old American millionaire, who was dressed in a blue flight suit and wore a cowboy hat, was accompanied by three crew members on a journey to the edge of space that lasted around 10 minutes and 20 seconds. After landing and exiting the space capsule, Bezos and the rest of the crew exchanged hugs and sprayed each other with champagne.
“Astronaut Bezos in my seat – happy, happy, happy,” Bezos stated as the crew members belted back in aboard New Shepard’s capsule following a few minutes of weightlessness in space, in response to a mission control status check.
Bezos, founder of e-commerce company Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O), and his brother Mark Bezos, a private equity executive, were joined by two others. Pioneering female aviator Wally Funk, 82, and recent high school graduate Oliver Daemen, 18, become the oldest and youngest people to reach space.
The fully autonomous 60-foot-tall (18.3-meters-tall) gleaming white spacecraft, with a blue feather design on its side, ignited its BE-3 engines for liftoff from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One facility about 20 miles (32 km) outside the rural town of Van Horn. There were generally clear skies with a few patchy clouds on a cool morning for the launch.
The flight came nine days after Briton Richard Branson was aboard his competing space tourism company Virgin Galactic’s successful inaugural suborbital flight from New Mexico.
Bezos gave a thumbs-up sign from inside the capsule after landing on the desert floor. He stepped out to cheers from family members and Blue Origin employees and gave high-fives to some of the roughly two dozen people on hand.
He founded Blue Origin two decades ago. This was the company’s first crewed flight to space.
New Shepard was designed to hurtle at speeds upwards of 2,200 miles (3,540 km) per hour to an altitude reaching the so-called Kármán line – 62 miles (100 km) – set by an international aeronautics body as defining the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space.
After the capsule separated from the booster, the crew unbuckled for a few minutes of weightlessness. The capsule then returned to Earth under parachutes, using a retro-thrust system that expelled a “pillow of air” for a soft landing.
The mission was part of a fiercely competitive battle between Bezos’ Blue Origin and Branson’s Virgin Galactic to tap a potentially lucrative space tourism market the Swiss bank UBS estimates will be worth $3 billion annually in a decade.
Before the flight, Bezos and the other passengers climbed into an SUV vehicle for a short drive to the launch pad, then walked up a tower and got aboard the spacecraft. Each passenger rang a shiny bell before boarding the craft’s capsule.
Branson got to space first, but Bezos flew higher – Virgin Galactic managed an altitude of 53 miles (86 km) – in what experts called the world’s first unpiloted space flight with an all-civilian crew.
The flight coincides with the anniversary of Americans Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin becoming the first humans to walk on the moon, on July 20, 1969. New Shepard is named for Alan Shepard, who in 1961 became the first American in space.
Funk was one of the so-called Mercury 13 group of women who trained to become NASA astronauts in the early 1960s but was passed over because of her gender. Daemen, Blue Origin’s first paying customer, is set to study physics and innovation management at college in the Netherlands. His father, who heads investment management firm Somerset Capital Partners, was on-site to watch his son fly to space.
New Shepard is a rocket-and-capsule combo that cannot be piloted from inside the spacecraft. It is completely computer-flown and had none of Blue Origin’s staff astronauts or trained personnel onboard. Virgin Galactic used a spaceplane with a pair of pilots on board.
The reusable Blue Origin booster had previously flown twice to space.
The launch represented another step in the race to establish a space tourism sector that Swiss investment bank UBS estimates will reach $3 billion annually in a decade. Another billionaire tech mogul, Elon Musk, plans to send an all-civilian crew on a several-day orbital mission on his Crew Dragon capsule in September.
On Twitter, Musk wished the Blue Origin crew “best of luck” hours before the launch.
The first of two more passenger flights is expected to take place in September or October this year, according to Blue Origin.
According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, Bezos is worth $206 billion. He stepped down as Amazon’s CEO this month, but he remains the company’s executive chairman.