Jeff Bezos launched to the edge of space Tuesday morning with three fellow passengers and landed safely in a Texas desert aboard his space company’s crew capsule. The NS-16 mission marked Blue Origin’s first to carry humans and kicked off commercial service for the company’s space tourism business. Flying Bezos, the richest man in the world who founded Blue Origin in 2000, sent a signal to prospective space tourists that the company’s suborbital New Shepard rocket is safe to fly and open for business.
The six-story-tall New Shepard booster lifted off under clear skies at 9:12AM ET on Tuesday from its remote launch site in Van Horn, Texas, with the company’s gumdrop-shaped RSS First Step crew capsule fixed on top. Bezos, his brother Mark, aviation legend Wally Funk, and Dutch teen Oliver Daemen — who represented Blue Origin’s first paying customer — were strapped inside the capsule. The crew capsule sped to a peak altitude of 66 miles at three times the speed of sound before parting with the booster. The passengers experienced a brief feeling of weightlessness and could see the curvature of Earth on the brim of its atmosphere.
“My main mission was accomplished — I didn’t kick anyone,” Bezos quipped after his capsule touched down. “I was surprised at how easy zero-G was... it was like swimming.”
The mission made Funk, 82, the oldest person to reach space, and Daemen, 18, the youngest. Bezos has said launching to space has been his dream since he was a kid. He became the second billionaire to ride his own rocket to space, after Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson who flew on his company’s SpaceShipTwo spaceplane on July 11th.
“We went right on up, and I saw darkness,” an elated Funk said about her flight during a post-launch awards ceremony. “I thought I was gonna see the world, but we weren’t quite high enough, and I felt great.”
A video from inside the cabin at peak altitude showed the crew floating around, with Daemen upside down at one point and Bezos’ legs in the air. “Who wants Skittles?” Bezos asked, tossing one into Daemen’s mouth.
The New Shepard booster landed vertically on a concrete pad five miles from where it launched, capping the third haul to space for that particular booster. Before Tuesday’s flight, Blue Origin had conducted 15 uncrewed test launches of its New Shepard rocket.
The NS-16 passengers were awarded astronaut wings, a ceremonial rite of passage for people who’ve flown beyond the boundary of Earth’s atmosphere 50 miles up.
The company has yet to reveal the price it charges for each seat and has declined to offer any ballpark figures. “We’ll be announcing that later,” Bezos said when asked by The Verge during a photo op at New Shepard’s landing pad how much his company plans to charge per seat. Asked when “later” might be, he replied: “We’re not quite sure yet.”
The passenger seat occupied by Daemen, a recent high school grad from the Netherlands, was initially reserved for the anonymous winner of an auction that Blue Origin carried out in June. That winner bid $28 million to fly but rescheduled for a later New Shepard mission “due to scheduling conflicts.” Blue Origin spokespeople declined to identify the bidder or expand on the scheduling issues. Daemen’s father, founder and CEO of a Dutch private equity firm, had bought a seat on New Shepard’s next mission in the fall and was bumped up to the first flight instead. He gave the seat to his son.
New Shepard’s most recent test flight in April was an “astronaut rehearsal” mission, where company executives roleplayed as passengers in the moments leading up to liftoff. “Every mission we’ve conducted so far has been preparing us to put humans on board,” Blue Origin’s NS-16 flight director Steve Lanius told reporters on Sunday.
Tuesday’s flight was a long-sought success for the company as it faces aggressive competition from other space firms like Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Blue Origin had pitched New Glenn, its much larger rocket system in development in Florida, to the Air Force for a multibillion-dollar launch program, but it lost to SpaceX and its other rival United Launch Alliance. In April, NASA rejected Blue Moon, the company’s proposed human lunar lander. The agency opted to pick SpaceX’s Starship system instead.
Blue Origin launches New Shepard from its Launch Site One facility in Van Horn, a remote town in West Texas roughly 70 miles from the US-Mexico border. The first iteration of the rocket began as a smaller concept called Goddard, which debuted in 2006. New Shepard, launched for the first time in 2015 but crashed during its attempt to land. All other flights have been successful, giving Blue Origin the confidence to send its billionaire founder on the rocket’s inaugural crewed mission.
“We know the vehicle is safe. If the vehicle is not safe for me, it’s not safe for anyone,” Bezos told CNN in an interview Monday morning. Blue Origin engineers conducted some real-time evaluations with some of NS-16’s passengers midflight, and post-mission data reviews will provide hoards of data to inform any changes to the passenger experience in the future. Lessons learned from New Shepard flights will inform Blue Origin’s other vehicles, like New Glenn and Blue Moon.
Update July 20th, 5:40PM ET: Adds new quotes from the New Shepard crew speaking at a post-launch event and Jeff Bezos’ response to questions about New Shepard seat prices.