11 days after Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and his crew mates today flew to space on their Blue Origin New Glenn capsule.
Security around “Launch Site One” in West Texas was tight, including road closures. These disappointed some would-be onlookers, who hoped to witness the event from close by. But there was plenty of coverage for the event itself, with Blue Origin livestreaming it on their website. The flight went ahead on schedule, without any weather-related delays.
Jeff Bezos didn’t “win” the so-called “Billionaires’ Race” with Branson, as we saw. But there is some consolation, in that Blue Origin’s capsule flew higher. It reached 351,210 feet, or 107 kilometres, or 66.5 statute miles. This compares with Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, reaching 282,000 feet, or 86 kilometres, or 53.4 miles.
In raw numbers, the difference (69,210 feet, 21km, 13.1mi) sounds like a lot. But in the grand scheme of things, both vehicles gave their occupants a very similar taste of weightlessness. But beyond the inevitable bragging rights, the other difference between these altitudes, is that Blue Origin’s is more than 100km/62mi.
As Blue Origin’s narrators said repeatedly, 100km is the Kármán line, i.e. the boundary of the ‘edge’ of space, according to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI). So with that definition, Jeff Bezos went to space, but Richard Branson didn’t. But it’s not that simple – NASA (among others) now uses a different definition, at 50 statute miles. This is a long topic, that we preemptively covered HERE.
The flight is notable in having non-company employees on board, unlike Virgin Galactic’s recent attempt. On board the New Glenn capsule were Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, pioneering female aviator Wally Funk and Oliver Daemen. The latter is an 18-year-old, whose identity was a secret until just 2-3 days ago. He is the son of the mystery bidder who paid $28 million, for the last seat in Blue Origin’s first crewed flight.
The teenager’s father is Somerset Capital Partners CEO and founder Joes Daemen. He dropped out of going into space himself, officially due to “scheduling conflicts”. His son Oliver is a high-school graduate, about to start studying physics at University. So never mind Jeff Bezos – this Blue Origin flight became notable for another reason (or two): it included the youngest AND the oldest persons to ever fly to space!
By the way those “scheduling conflicts” were probably a bit of a fib. Joes Daemen was there to congratulate his son, as he exited the capsule on landing. Wally Funk also drew cheers of the welcoming crew outside the capsule. Even before they exited it, Jeff Bezos got the chance to describe the experience as “Best day ever!” when each crew member gave their status report.
This is the first Blue Origin flight with a paying passenger, Oliver Daemen. However, technically this is not a revenue flight. The funds are going to Club for the Future, a Blue Origin foundation that aims to inspire young people to start careers in STEM and space.
Jeff Bezos – How Do You Insure a Billionaire in Space?
However, the New Glenn and New Sheppard system needed FAA clearance to fly with passengers on board. This is because this space vehicle is fully-automated. This is unlike Virgin Galactic, whose vehicle flew several times with pilots, before passengers got on board. Today was the first time that anyone flew to space in New Glenn. And incidentally, allowing Jeff Bezos, i.e. the world’s richest man to do this, is a bit risky – if you are an insurer!
Blue Origin’s and Jeff Bezos’ choice of an automated launch vehicle and capsule, have their advantages. These include the ability to carry two more passengers, instead of the pilots. But certification for such a vehicle is that much more difficult. And in this flight at least, New Glenn had just four passengers, not its full capacity of six. But four passengers is the maximum that Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo vehicles can carry.
Their inaugural flights out of the way, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson can now focus on what really matters. Getting there first and who goes highest are good for publicity and bragging rights. But what matters more is the potential market for these vehicles. Analysts estimate the size of the space tourism market at $3 billion! Stepping on solid footing into this emerging industry is more important than getting there first.
Finally, the date for today’s flight isn’t arbitrary. The 20th of July in 1969 was the day that Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first people to walk on the moon.