Popular Mechanics contributing writer Joe Pappalardo is in Van Horn, Texas today to watch Jeff Bezos and three other passengers ride in the first human spaceflight for Blue Origin. We will continue to update this story with new information and dispatches from Launch Site One throughout the day.
A rocket propellant and champagne flowed freely in West Texas today as Blue Origin celebrated its historic first flight with passengers, vaulting four people—including the world’s richest man—into suborbital space.
The crew aboard New Shepard, Blue Origin’s reusable rocket—company founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, 82-year-old Mercury 17 astronaut candidate Wally Funk, and 18-year-old paying customer Oliver Daemen—made the 11-minute flight to and from the edge of space.
“Best day ever!” Jeff Bezos cried while in flight, close to the flight’s 107-kilometer apogee.
The four passengers formed the breathing payload of the first launch of a privately funded spacecraft with people onboard. New Shepard took off from the privately built spaceport Launch Site One, located in a nearly depopulated stretch of desert 120 miles east of El Paso.
At launch, the New Shepard’s single BE-3 engine sparked to life, lifting the 60-foot rocket in what appeared from 3 miles away as a gentle, slow ascent to the sky. The rush of engine noise and steadily climbing airspeed belied this illusion, based on comparisons to beefier orbital vehicles.
The supercharged liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen engine reached more than 1 million horsepower, lofting the space capsule before the pair separated. The four passengers in the capsule experienced 3 to 4 minutes of microgravity weightlessness, unbelted from their seats and staring out of the largest windows ever installed on a spacecraft. Over the radio, various hoots, giggles, and gales of laughter could be heard from those onboard.
The booster that gave the capsule a ride to space crested above the Kármán line before heading back down. During its own landing, the BE-3’s crucial attribute—its ability to throttle—was on full display. BE-3 eased off to slowly touch down, operating from a peak 490 kilonewtons (kN) down to just 90kN. Guided by various external fins, the booster settled down on four spindly legs, ready for reuse.
Inside the capsule, Bezos and his crewmates had 30 seconds to regain their seats and buckle in. They had no guidance on the way down—it was mostly ballistic physics that aimed the craft to its landing pad, just 2 miles away from the launch point. The New Shepard capsule, named after Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space in 1961, is fully automated without any pilot required.
The trip down generated nearly 5Gs, or five times Earth’s normal gravity. Three parachutes ended the free-fall. At that point, Blue Origin engineers used the attitude thrusters to gently rotate the craft, giving the four passengers a 360-degree view of the Texas landscape below. Despite the parachutes, the ground quickly rushed to meet them until a last second blast of retrorockets provided a cushion of air, enabling the capsule to touchdown at around 5 mph under a bloom of light desert dust.
The entire flight lasted just over 11 minutes. It was the third time the booster and capsule have reached space, and a human-rated spacecraft is now ready for ticket sales.
After the capsule landed and the four elated passengers stepped back on terra firma, it was time for backslapping, hugs from loved ones, and sprays of champagne.
Clearly, for Jeff Bezos, the rest of the crew, and the company that delivered them safely, today was a triumph. However, the road to space—and what it meant to get there—couldn’t have been any more different for each passenger.
From Astronauts to Ticketholders
Today, at age 82, Wally Funk became the oldest person to reach space. It’s more than just a statistic.
Funk was 23 when she began testing for spaceflight. In 1960, a privately funded group recruited two dozen women to take as many as the astronaut physical and psychological qualification tests that had been designed for male candidates. The women who passed the same available testing as the Mercury 7, including Funk, were called the Mercury 13.
In July 1962, John Glenn appeared before a special Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics and helped end the women’s dream to be included in human spaceflight. “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order,” Glenn said.
Glenn reversed this stance 3 years later—after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964— but by then, the damage had been done. NASA’s astronaut corps remained all male, and Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova had become the first woman in space on June 16, 1963. In 1983, astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman to do the same on STS-7.
Funk went on to be an aviation trailblazer as the first female FAA inspector and first female NTSB air safety investigator. When she crossed the Kármán line today, officially reaching space by all definitions, she became the oldest person to do so. The dethroned, previous record holder was none other than Glenn, who was 77 when he flew on the STS-95.
However well-deserved and satisfying Funk’s achievement, the other three passengers are more representative of what this flight means for the future.
Having Jeff Bezos onboard an untested space capsule isn’t just ego on display—it’s great marketing. The presence of Bezos and his brother, Mark, made this an eye-catching publicity stunt from the start. It’s also an advertisement for safety. This spacecraft is being marketed for well-heeled space tourists who have money to burn—but much to live for.
In a stark way, today’s launch and landing marks the end of the era of the professional astronaut like Funk aspired to be, the elite professional who can withstand the rigorous training and performance pressures of piloting a spacecraft. Those onboard today’s flight rode inside a fully automated capsule, with nothing to do but enjoy the experience. And while there are some physical limitations on who can fly on New Shepherd and undergo a 2-day, 14-hour training course (plus test) for passengers, the whole point is opening up suborbital flights to as many people as can afford it.
The walking, smiling example of this reality is Oliver Daemen, the teenager whose father bought him a ticket to become the youngest human ever to travel to space. Although he has a pilot’s license and aspires to be a scientist, his trip to space is solely based on Joes Daemen, the founder of an investment firm based in the Netherlands, paying an undisclosed price for the seat.
The anonymous winner of an auction, who paid $28 million to be onboard the first launch, declined to fly today based on a vague conflict in “scheduling.” That opened up a seat, and Blue Origin opted for PR and marketing at the price of any flying or science experience. Suborbital research flights are expected to provide a good source of revenue, since the price for launches will be lower and researchers will be able to tend to their experiments while in flight.
Blue Origin has already flown nine missions with payloads from paying customers on board. This will remain a sizable part of the company’s future suborbital business, so much so that half of New Shepard’s fleet of two vehicles is dedicated to cargo flights. The two vehicles share a space in what Blue Origin calls The Barn—where the rockets sleep at night, as employees say.
Company engineers could have flown to evaluate the craft for future improvements, but declined. “We didn’t see any value, because the vehicle is automated,” Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said. “There is nothing for a crew to do.” Any evaluation of the flight characteristics from within the capsule will be supplied by the only company staffer on board: Jeff Bezos.
“I’m a little surprised Blue Origin decided not to fly a scientist or a member of its own staff,” says Laura Seward Forczyk, owner of space consulting firm Astralytical. “But I’m not surprised they chose Oliver Daemen once the auction winner was unavailable. Blue Origin wants to call this their first commercial flight, and Oliver Daemen is their first paying commercial customer.”
Daemen is not the first tourist to reach space; billionaire Charles Simonyi beat him with trips to the International Space Station in 2007 and 2009 at a total cost of $60 million. And Bezos isn’t even the first billionaire to get into space this month, since Richard Branson boarded his Virgin Galactic vessel during an air-launch to nearly 90 kilometers on July 11.
So for Blue Origin, including Daemen was a shrewd way to keep an eye on the future while celebrating the past. Having the oldest and youngest space fliers on board provided a narrative beyond more than just the beaming Bezos brothers.
“What a brilliant story for us to provide,” says Blue Origin’s Director of Astronaut Sales, Ariane Cornell. But the fact is, Daemen—not Jeff Bezos or Wally Funk—is the most significant member on board when it comes to the company’s tourism business model.
Jeff Bezos made it to space today, a personal dream fulfilled, but his ambitions for Blue Origin go much higher than New Shepard can reach.
“Suborbital human spaceflight is just a stepping stone for Blue Origin,” Forczyk says. The work being done here in this secret desert facility will determine if he succeeds or fails at higher altitudes.
Inside a Private Spaceport
In 2004, a series of land purchases around Van Horn, Texas (pop. 2,000) began to raise eyebrows. Various companies were snatching up ranch land for wildly inflated prices, but they all seemed to share the same address. And they were each named for famous explorers: James Cook L.P., Cabot Enterprises, and so on.
In 2006, Jeff Bezos came clean. He was behind the land grab, and his goal was to create a spaceport called Launch Site One. It would be the place, away from neighbors and prying eyes, where he would test a new generation of rocket engines and use them to fly a suborbital rocket into space—with people inside.
Since then, as Blue Origin has marched steadily toward this goal, the company’s protective posture toward Launch Site One persists. Its 80,000-acre expanse is located behind a security-camera festooned gate on State Highway 54, surrounded by dust-blown sandstone flats and defiant, Pleistocene rock formations. The nearest population center is the crossroads town of Van Horn, 25 miles to the south. A sleek statue with Blue Origin’s feathery logo sits outside the gate, installed just 2 years ago.
The company offered no designated public viewing areas during its first human launch, and state officials closed the only highway to the site and troopers prowled it for gawkers. However, Blue Origin did invite two dozen media representatives (including Popular Mechanics) through the gates to watch—the largest such press event since Blue Origin’s inception, providing a glimpse of the world’s most insular rocket test facility.
Blue Origin uses the vast space here to spread out its operations. Rocket and engine test center fans out across the scrub, with miles between them to safely contain any disaster. New Shepard’s launch and landing pad are to the north, while a BE-3 engine vertical test stand, and nearby vacuum chamber test, sit to the west. Right now, the work being done to the complex’s east, home to three test cells dedicated for testing the BE-4 engine, is largely determining the future of Blue Origin.
This is the birthplace of the engine, designed by Blue Origin for heavy lift launches. It’s a revolutionary design, being the first liquefied natural gas fueled rocket engine ever developed. It promises 2,400 kN of thrust with the BE-3’s ability to throttle deeply. Company officials say the development of the BE-3 used in today’s launch is the direct forebear of the BE-4, especially when it comes to lessons learned during its manufacture.
In 2014, the United Launch Alliance chose to use two BE-4s in the main stage of its future Vulcan Centaur rocket, being built as competitor for national security launches. A slate of those launches will be awarded this year, but Blue Origin is years late in delivering engines ready to be attached to the rocket and tested. Because the BE-3 and BE-4 share so many manufacturing and operational features, the successful human spaceflight is a welcome success for the larger engine program.
Today’s achievement is significant, but Blue Origin must follow up the victory with more wins and bigger hardware, given the company’s aspirations to fly higher than suborbital space. There’s no bigger sign of this mentality than the company’s chosen date for New Shepard’s inaugural “crewed” launch—the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11’s lunar touchdown.
The BE-4 is also the literal heart of Blue Origin’s long-term objectives than the spectacle— giving people a ride to the moon, from Earth all the way down to its surface.
For years, Blue Origin has developed its New Glenn orbital rocket. This year, Blue Origin lost a first, crucial skirmish with SpaceX over NASA’s first Human Landing Systems contract and filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office claiming the award “flawed.” A determination is expected soon. Another in-house project is the Blue Moon lander, a ferry for astronauts onto the lunar surface. Bezos teamed with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper in a joint bid to participate in NASA’s Artemis program using the lander.
An Eye on the Future
For the New Glenn spacecraft, today’s flight is just the start of its service life. The subsystems will be checked out, one at a time, with each connection, communications box, and piece of software double-checked by engineers. After a design review, the capsule and rocket will be mated again, again checked out, and then prepared for the next flight. Blue Origin officials say they expect two launches with people this year.
Likewise, amid the celebration, there’s the sense that things here are just starting. The private spaceport is roiled by construction, tickets are being sold, and a new space age has begun. Whether this is a high water mark or just the start of a new tide, however, is yet to be seen.
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