Blue Origin launches 6 passengers to edge of space and back
▶ Watch Video: Blue Origin launches its fourth crewed space flight
Jeff Bezos’ rocket company Blue Origin launched its fourth crewed New Shepard flight Thursday — a 10-minute thrill ride carrying five entrepreneur/adventurers and the spacecraft’s chief designer to the edge of space and back.
Running two days late because of high winds at the company’s West Texas launch site, the stubby New Shepard rocket’s hydrogen-fueled main engine roared to life at 9:58 a.m. EDT, throttled up to full thrust and boosted the spacecraft away atop a jet of flaming exhaust.
Gary Lai, one of Blue Origin’s first employees and the architect of the New Shepard program, was added to the crew in place of comedian Pete Davidson after a launch delay and schedule conflict forced the “Saturday Night Live” star to withdraw.
But it appeared to be clear sailing Thursday as the reusable rocket and crew capsule raced straight up toward an altitude just above 62 miles, the internationally recognized “boundary” between the discernible atmosphere and space.
Three minutes after liftoff, at an altitude of around 240,000 feet, or 45 miles, the computer-controlled New Shepard crew capsule separated from its booster and continued coasting upward. Now weightless, the passengers were able to unstrap and float about the cabin for three to four minutes as they arced over the top of the trajectory.
Joining Lai for the sub-orbital flight were philanthropists and space enthusiasts Marc and Sharon Hagle; University of North Carolina professor and world traveler Jim Kitchen; George Nield, president of Commercial Space Technologies and a former manager with NASA and the FAA; and “angel investor” Marty Allen.
The New Shepard capsule is equipped with the largest windows of any operational spacecraft in the world, giving the crew spectacular hemispheric views of the Earth below and the deep black of space above as it reached the top of its trajectory and began the long plunge back to the launch site.
“Looking out the window and seeing the black sky and the curvature of the Earth is really going to be special,” Nield said before launch.
Said Kitchen, who has visited every U.N.-recognized nation on Earth: “Having been to all 193 countries and to be able to go to space and see this borderless planet I think is so meaningful, especially given all that the world is going through right now.”
The booster followed a similar trajectory as the capsule, maintaining its tail-down orientation as it homed in on its landing pad two miles from where it took off. Nearing the ground, the rocket’s BE-3 main engine re-ignited, four landing legs deployed and the booster settled to touchdown in a cloud of dust.
The crew capsule followed two minutes later, descending under three large parachutes to a walking-pace landing cushioned by powerful air jets an instant before touchdown at 10:09 a.m. EDT. Mission duration: about 10 minutes.
The launching marked Blue Origin’s 20th New Shepard flight, its fourth with passengers on board and the 24th non-government commercial spaceflight overall.
For Lai, riding into space on a rocket he helped design gave him a chance to personally evaluate “the safest human spaceflight vehicle ever designed or built or operated.”
“We are going to ramp up operations,” Lai told CBS News before the first crewed flight of a New Shepard capsule in 2019. “We’re going to have dozens and eventually hundreds and thousands of astronauts, we hope, fly on New Shepard.”
Blue Origin and its customers do not discuss the cost of a New Shepard seat, but prices are thought to be in the half-million-dollar range if not higher. Lai, as a company employee, presumably is flying at no charge but no details were provided.
Thursday’s flight was Blue Origin’s first without one or more celebrities on board.
Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark and aviation pioneer Wally Funk were on board for New Shepard’s first piloted mission last July 20; William Shatner of “Star Trek” fame was aboard for the second launch Oct. 13; and TV personality Michael Strahan and Laura Shepard Churchley, daughter of astronaut Alan Shepard, were aboard for the third on Dec. 11.
Davidson, like Strahan, Churchley and Shatner before him, was invited to fly in what amounted to savvy marketing guaranteed to generate widespread media coverage in a high-stakes competition between Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, owned by fellow billionaire and master marketeer Richard Branson.
Virgin has launched four piloted flights of its winged spaceplane VSS Unity, most recently sending up Branson, two pilots and three company crewmates last July 11. Commercial operations are expected to start later this year.