Billionaire Bezos launches into space with his own rocket

Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, took off on his own rocket and reached space on Tuesday, a landmark moment for a fledgling industry looking to make the last frontier accessible to elite tourists.

Blue Origin’s first manned mission, an 11-minute jump from West Texas to beyond the Karman Line and back again, coincided with the 52nd anniversary of the first moon landing.

“It’s dark in here,” said aviator Wally Funk, one of the four crew members, along with Bezos, his brother and 18-year-old Dutchman Oliver Daemen, who will become the youngest astronaut.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson made the trip on July 11, narrowly beating the Amazon mogul in their battle for the billionaires.

But Blue Origin’s sights are higher: both in the height to which its reusable New Shepard craft will take off compared to Virgin’s spaceplane, and in its ambitions.

Bezos, 57, founded Blue Origin in 2000 with the goal of one day building floating space colonies with artificial gravity where millions of people will work and live.

Today, the company is developing a heavy orbital rocket called New Glenn and also a lunar lander it hopes to contract with NASA.

New Shepard has flown 15 unmanned flights to test it and test safety mechanisms, such as firing the capsule off the launch pad if the missile explodes, or landing with one less parachute.

The launch was slightly delayed, coming at 1312 GMT from a remote facility in the western Texas desert called Launch Site One, about 40 kilometers north of the nearest town, Van Horn.

“Today is just the first of many flights to arrive at New Shepard,” Blue Origin sales director Ariane Cornell said in a live stream, adding that ticket sales were now open.

Richest, oldest, youngest

Notably absent from the flight is the still-anonymous winner of a $28 million auction for a seat, who had “schedule conflicts” and will participate in a future flight.

Daemen’s father, the CEO of a private equity firm, came second in the tender, making his teenage son the company’s first paying customer.

After launch, New Shepard flew into space at speeds of more than 3,700 km/h using a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen engine whose only by-product is water vapor.

The capsule separated from the booster, and when it got high enough, the astronauts unbuckled their seatbelts and experienced three to four minutes of weightlessness.

The spacecraft peaks at about 65 miles (106 kilometers) high, allowing crew members to admire the curvature of the planet and the inky blackness of the rest of the universe.

The booster autonomously returned to a landing pad just north of its launch site, while the capsule with three giant parachutes and finally a bow thruster free-falls back to Earth for a soft landing in the desert.

‘Read the room’

Blue Origin has remained relatively coy about what comes next.

The company says it plans two more flights this year and “many more” next year.

Analysts say much will depend on early successes and building a solid safety record.

CEO Bob Smith revealed on Sunday that the next launch could be in September or October, adding that “the willingness to pay remains quite high”.

At the same time, the industry is beginning to face criticism over the optics of super-rich individuals rocketing to space as Earth faces climate-driven disasters and a coronavirus pandemic.

“Could there be a worse time for two uber-rich rocket owners to take a quick jaunt into the dark?” wrote Shannon Stirone in an Atlantic piece entitled “Space Billionaires, Please Read the Room.”

(AFP)

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