WASHINGTON: Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, soared about 107km above the Texas desert aboard his company Blue Origin’s New Shepard launch vehicle yesterday and returned safely to Earth, a historic suborbital flight that helps to inaugurate a new era of private commercial space tourism.
“Best day ever,” Bezos, accompanied by the world’s oldest and youngest space travellers, said after his space capsule descended with three large parachutes and touched down, kicking up a cloud of dust.
The 57-year-old American billionaire, wearing a blue flight suit and donning a cowboy hat, was joined by three crewmates for a trip to the edge of space lasting 10 minutes and 10 seconds. After landing, Bezos and the other crew members exchanged hugs.
“Astronaut Bezos in my seat – happy, happy, happy,” Bezos said in response to a mission control status check after the crew members buckled back in aboard New Shepard’s capsule following a few minutes of weightlessness in space.
The fully autonomous 18.3-metre-tall gleaming white spacecraft, with a blue feather design on its side, ignited its BE-3 engines for a vertical liftoff from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One facility about 32km outside the rural town of Van Horn. There were generally clear skies with a few patchy clouds on a cool morning for the launch.
Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, 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, became the oldest and youngest people to reach space.
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. The two flights give credibility and inject enthusiasm into the fledgling space tourism industry that Swiss bank UBS estimates will be worth $3 billion annually in a decade.
Bezos, who founded Blue Origin two decades ago, described the company’s first crewed space flight as a step towards an ambitious future. Blue Origin plans for two more passenger flights this year. Bezos said it has not determined its future pace of flights after that but said it is approaching $100 million in private sales.
“The demand is very, very high,” Bezos told a news conference.
“We’re going to build a road to space so that our kids and their kids can build a future. We need to do that to solve the problems here on Earth,” Bezos added.
New Shepard hurtled at speeds reaching 3,595km per hour, exceeding the so-called Kármán line – 100km – set by an international aeronautics body to define the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space.
After the capsule separated from the booster, the crew unbuckled to experience weightlessness. The capsule then returned to Earth under parachutes, using a retro-thrust system that expelled a “pillow of air” for a soft landing.