JULY 20, 2021
VAN HORN, Texas — Jeff Bezos and three passengers reached the edge of space and safely returned Tuesday morning after a flight of just over 10 minutes the billionaire businessman hopes will kickstart an expansive new era for human space travel.
Mr. Bezos and his fellow passengers were launched at 9:12 a.m. ET to the edge of space from a remote west Texas site on the New Shepard, a rocket-powered spacecraft developed by his company Blue Origin LLC.
The vessel’s reusable booster returned by 9:19 a.m., blackening the pad as it landed.
Mr. Bezos has been building toward the launch since 2000, when he founded Blue Origin. The company has hired staffers to develop rockets, engines and spacecraft and now employs more than 3,500 people at facilities in Florida, California and other locations.
In the run-up to today’s event, Mr. Bezos has been promoting Blue Origin’s launch using his personal Instagram account. One video showed him fist-bumping his brother in a blue flight suit; in a photo he posed with his fellow New Shepard passengers in the Texas desert.
The flight is timed to coincide with the date in 1969 when the Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon. In speeches, Mr. Bezos has cited that event as a key moment during his life and stated his conviction that humanity must establish outposts in the solar system where people could live.
Mr. Bezos also has said he has invested around $1 billion annually in Blue Origin. The 57-year-old is considered the world’s wealthiest person, with a net worth above $200 billion, according to Bloomberg.
Blue Origin is looking to gain traction in a space market that has attracted fresh investor attention, with hundreds of millions of dollars poured into startups and listed companies. Space flight has long been dominated by government agencies. However, more companies are working to position themselves for a sector that some analysts believe may grow rapidly in the coming decades in tandem with technological advances. Morgan Stanley has estimated that space-related revenue could triple to more than $1 trillion by 2040.
On July 11, Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. founder Richard Branson traveled with five others about 54 miles up in a company spacecraft, a flight meant to help spur tourism in space. Later this year, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the formal name for Elon Musk’s SpaceX, plans to take four commercial passengers into orbit on one of the company’s Crew Dragon capsules. SpaceX has also been completing launches for commercial customers and government agencies.
Space flights are risky, and the vehicles that companies have designed to ferry humans to space have been tested a fraction of the number of times that are typical for commercial planes. Executives at Blue Origin have expressed confidence in New Shepard’s taking up crew, noting the autonomously flown rocket has completed 15 consecutive trips.
“We’re ready to go. We can go fly astronauts and do that safely,” Bob Smith, Blue Origin’s chief executive, said Sunday at a briefing with reporters.
Also expected to join Mr. Bezos after two days of group training: his brother, Mark; Wally Funk, an 82-year-old pilot who trained in a program for female astronauts in the 1960s; and Blue Origin’s first paying customer, 18-year-old Dutch student Oliver Daemen.
Ms. Funk and Mr. Daemen, also a pilot, would respectively be the oldest and youngest people to reach space.
The launch was originally meant to include the person who paid close to $30 million in an auction for a seat. Last week Blue Origin said Mr. Daemen would be on the ship instead because the winning bidder had a scheduling conflict. The company hasn’t disclosed who won the auction.
Blue Origin is targeting a broader set of business goals beyond space tourism, including a push to win contracts with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other government agencies.
Last year, Blue Origin was part of a team that competed to develop a new moon lander for NASA’s Artemis program, which seeks to return American astronauts to the moon as soon as 2024. The agency chose SpaceX to develop the initial lander, but Blue Origin filed a protest over the contract decision.
Blue Origin has spent years working on the New Glenn, a 321-foot rocket designed to lift major payloads into orbit. The space company has also been building a new engine for United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., to replace Russian-made engines currently used for sensitive military and intelligence launches.
In an interview Monday with CNN, Mr. Bezos said that Tuesday’s launch will help Blue Origin make space trips more like commercial airline flights.
“If we can do that, then we’ll be building a road to space for the next generations to do amazing things there,” he said.