EletiofeJeff Bezos Touches Space Aboard Blue Origin Rocket

Jeff Bezos Touches Space Aboard Blue Origin Rocket

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In 1994, Jeff Bezos and his then-wife, MacKenzie, drove from New York City to Seattle so he could start a new company to sell books on the internet. Assuming a normal highway speed, they would have zipped past 65 mile markers every hour during their 2,500-mile journey. Today, funded by the billions of dollars he made from that much-expanded company, Jeff Bezos traveled the most important 65 miles in his life: straight up, to the doorstep of space. It took him a little over three minutes to achieve that altitude. He was the first passenger on New Shepard, the suborbital rocket system built by his company, Blue Origin.

Joining Bezos—and the ranks of the 580 people who have previously traveled to space—were his brother Mark, 53, a volunteer fireman and philanthropist who now runs an equity fund; Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk, an 82-year-old aviation pioneer who was denied a chance to become a Mercury astronaut because she was a woman; and Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old student whose bid of millions won him the distinction of becoming Blue’s first paying customer. (He actually was an underbidder; the unknown person who originally won the auction with a $28 million bid postponed their fight due to “scheduling difficulties.”) The latter two are now the oldest and youngest humans to sample space travel.

Lasting only 10 minutes and 10 seconds, the flight seemed flawless, from launch to touchdown. It began with a show of confidence, the crew bubbling with enthusiasm as they prepared, and ended in a jubilant celebration of the newly minted astronauts as they reunited with their loved ones after their brief time away.

WIRED’s Steven Levy is reporting daily from Van Horn, Texas, where Jeff Bezos is among the first passengers aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket system. You can read the previous installment here.

This suborbital jaunt by Bezos and his crewmates marks a long-overdue entry into the human spaceflight club for Blue Origin, which Bezos founded in 2000. (In contrast, the US crewed space program, initiated after Russia launched its Sputnik satellite in 1957, took only 12 years to get to the moon.) But deliberation was built into Blue Origin’ modus operandi: The company’s motto is “Gradatim Ferociter,” Latin for “step by step ferociously.” Its mascot is a tortoise.

But something happened this year that led Blue Origin to perhaps skip a step or two. It had been widely assumed that the seats in Blue’s first human flight would be filled by its own employees, including at least one of several astronauts on the payroll. But after 15 painstaking test flights, and numerous revisions to the estimated timeline for when New Shepard would carry humans, suddenly Bezos announced that he would be joining others for a flight on July 20—the anniversary of the first moon landing. Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that earlier this month he stepped down as Amazon’s CEO.

At the time, fellow space billionaire Richard Branson hadn’t yet announced that he would ride in his own company’s rocket ship on July 11. (That hasty decision was made to slide in before Bezos’ flight—the Virgin Galactic founder had previously announced he would travel on a test flight later this year.)

Whatever the reasons, Bezos’ announcement was surprising. Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith defended the plan in a preflight briefing, saying that the two most recent test flights proved that all systems were ready, and since everything controlling the spacecraft runs autonomously, there was no need for human practice. “We didn’t see any value, quite honestly, from doing things stepwise,” he said, skipping straight to the ferocious part of the company’s motto. So there would be no human test flight, but a high-stakes maiden voyage with the boss, his brother, an octogenarian, and a teenager.

In the run-up to the flight, the normally press-shy company suddenly turned showbiz, releasing glossy videos and photos of the crew decked out in their bright blue jumpsuits. Original plans to accommodate a modest press contingent got jettisoned like a booster rocket, as the company invited dozens of reporters to its remote location in the West Texas desert, where Bezos owns over 300,000 acres and a mountain range.

At 7:25 Central Daylight Time, on the company’s launch pad, the passengers climbed five flights of steps, scaling the height of the 160-foot New Shepard reusable rocket, pausing briefly inside an fireproof “astronaut safety shelter,” a tightly enclosed fireproof room that can be used in the event of an emergency evacuation. Then Bezos led the crew across a skybridge—each ringing a silver ceremonial bell as they crossed—to the capsule, which rests on New Shepard like, well, a sex toy. At 7:34, they entered the hatch and buckled themselves in. Funk stuck a postcard of herself as a Mercury 13 candidate to her window, with plans to shoot a picture of it when she reached space. At 7:43, Blue Origin technicians closed the hatch and climbed down from the gantry. It was T-minus 21 minutes.

The two previous suborbital NASA launches—60 years ago—involved a lot of checking gauges and flipping switches. Bezos and his crew didn’t have any of that to worry about: New Shepard is completely AI-driven. They could watch the countdown from personal viewing screens on the sides of the large windows designed for a luxury view of the Earth and space.

There had been some reports of possible rain, but the day was stunning and clear. The countdown proceeded with only a slight hold at 15 minutes; then the count restarted. The system passed through a final two minutes of checks, all done by an auto sequence, and then a voice from mission control began the countdown: “10, 9, 8, 7, 6 … command engines start, 2 1.”

At 8:12 am, steam poured out of the bottom of the booster for a couple of seconds. “We have lift-off,” said the voice from the small mission control room on the base. Then the rocket jumped like a dart, sailing upwards until all that was left to see was a fuzzy contrail, a donut signifying the temporary hole in the sky that New Shepard had slipped through.

About three minutes later, the capsule, RSS First Step, separated from the rocket and pushed past the Earth’s atmosphere. This was it: The crew was weightless. They were space travelers. While the live feed didn’t give the thousands of online viewers real-time video, you could make out some of the audio that captured the joyous exclamations as the crew unbuckled and floated.

“Holy cow!”

“Good God!”

“Look out the window!”

“Whoooooooo!”

The New Shepard rocket had already begun its descent to Earth when the capsule gently began the journey home. A sonic boom announced the rocket’s return, and in a burst of fire it landed safely on its pad. Not long after, three red, white, and blue parachutes deployed above the capsule. “You have a very happy crew up here, I want you to know,” Bezos told the control room.

The capsule, having slowed to a mere mile or two per hour, flopped on the desert floor, unleashing a wide puff of smoke. The whole trip had gone by in a flash, a space voyager’s Quibi.

Blue Origin’s recovery team raced their SUVs through the desert, fast-walking the last few yards to snap the hatch. And then, one by one, the jubilant crew emerged, whooping and hollering. These space geeks had, essentially, won a Super Bowl. Their families were there to greet them, as well as Bezos’ girlfriend Lauren Sanchez. Mark Bezos emerged first, then Daemen, then Funk, who held her arms aloft in the victory sign. Clearly, she had yet to return to Earth. Finally, Jeff Bezos stepped out.

Perhaps the most ecstatic crew member was Funk, who had been one of the Mercury 13, a group of women who underwent astronaut training in 1960 but were rejected by the government because of their sex. Today, she finally achieved her life-long goal. The same goes for Blue Origin’s first paying customer, Oliver Daemen, though his life has so far spanned only 18 years. He has seven years to go to match the age of the previous record-holder of the youngest space traveler: Soviet cosmonaut Ghermon Tirov. When Daemen enters the University of Utrecht this fall, he will have the perfect topic for a freshman composition on how he spent his summer.

But as is expected of the world’s richest man, the day belonged to Jeff Bezos.

“Even as a teenager, I had an increasing conviction that [space] was important, not just a fun thing to do but actually important,” he told me in 2018. “And with every passing year I have even more conviction that this is the most important thing I’m working on.”

And work on it he will. Blue Origin has two more space tourism flights planned this year. In the works are multiple generations of space vehicles—powerful rockets to boost huge payloads in orbit, moon landers, and beyond. He’s fighting NASA to make it reconsider a multibillion-dollar moon lander contract that the agency granted to his rival, Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

But now he will do it as an astronaut. It took less than 11 minutes to get there. Or 20 years.


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