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Amazon's Jeff Bezos to deliver history with first all-civilian suborbital flight

NBC News logo NBC News 7/20/2021 Denise Chow
a man wearing sunglasses: Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, inspects New Shepard’s West Texas launch facility before the rocket’s maiden voyage. (Blue Origin) © Blue Origin Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, inspects New Shepard’s West Texas launch facility before the rocket’s maiden voyage. (Blue Origin)

Jeff Bezos, the 57-year-old founder of Amazon, may soon have a new title to add to his résumé: astronaut.

Bezos will attempt to fly to space Tuesday aboard a rocket and capsule developed by his private spaceflight company, Blue Origin. If he is successful, he will make history by being part of the first unpiloted suborbital flight with an all-civilian crew. The much-anticipated trip will also be the first crewed launch for Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket.

Bezos' launch comes just nine days after another billionaire, British entrepreneur Richard Branson, flew to the edge of space on a rocket-powered vehicle designed by his own space tourism company, Virgin Galactic. Both flights — combined with the competition between the rival billionaires — have captured global attention and garnered interest and enthusiasm for the nascent space tourism industry.


Weather permitting, Bezos is scheduled to launch Tuesday at 9 a.m. ET from a site in the West Texas desert southeast of El Paso. Blue Origin will stream the event live on its website beginning at 7:30 a.m. ET.

In an interview Monday on NBC's "TODAY" show, Bezos described his anticipation for the trip.

"I can’t wait to see what it’s going to be like. People who go into space say that they come back changed,” Bezos told "TODAY" co-host Hoda Kotb. "I can’t wait to see what it’s going to do to me."

Joining Bezos on the flight is his brother, Mark, and Wally Funk, 82, a former test pilot who was one of the Mercury 13 women who underwent training in the 1960s to demonstrate that women could qualify for NASA's astronaut corps. Funk would be the oldest person to reach space.

Rounding out the four-person crew is Oliver Daemen, 18, of the Netherlands, who could become the youngest astronaut.

Bezos' flight is a suborbital jaunt, which means he and his crew members won't actually enter into orbit around Earth. Rather, the capsule will reach the edge of space, at an altitude of around 65 miles, where the passengers will experience several minutes of weightlessness.

Video: Jeff Bezos and civilian crew emerge from Blue Origin capsule after successful flight (MSNBC)


The capsule will then descend under parachutes and land in the Texas desert. The entire flight is expected to last about 10 minutes.

Although Bezos will have a suborbital experience similar to Branson’s, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic operate with different flight profiles. Virgin Galactic's rocket-powered Unity craft launches from a carrier airplane from an altitude of 50,000 feet and is flown by two onboard pilots. Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket and capsule launch vertically and are designed to fly autonomously.

Blue Origin’s capsule is also designed to reach a higher altitude than Virgin Galactic’s vehicle. The edge of space is often defined by the so-called Kármán line, at 62 miles. The New Shepard capsule flies above the Kármán line, while Virgin Galactic’s craft reached an altitude of around 53 miles during Branson's flight, which fueled a budding rivalry between the companies.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the Air Force recognize the boundary of space at 50 miles, which means Bezos, Branson and their fellow passengers will all be eligible to get their commercial astronaut wings.

Bezos' flight is a critical milestone for Blue Origin and the commercial spaceflight industry, which until now has been dominated by Elon Musk's SpaceX. Both Branson's and Bezos' flights could open up a potentially lucrative new market for high-priced trips to the edge of space.

Blue Origin hasn't yet announced the cost of tickets on suborbital joyrides, which are expected to cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars. The company hopes to begin operational flights with paying passengers in the near future.

Even if Bezos' flight goes off without a hitch, it will probably take some time to build up the space tourism industry, said Marco Caceres, a space industry analyst with Teal Group Corp., an aerospace and defense market analysis firm.

"The flights with these billionaires is good for exposure and attracts attention, but what's going to add confidence is regularity," Caceres said. "It'll be important for these companies to show that they can do lots of flights with no significant problems and no major accidents."

In addition to suborbital trips offered by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, SpaceX is planning orbital tourism flights beginning later this year with the first mission to space with an all-civilian crew.

While the cost of suborbital and orbital trips will be out of reach for most people, Bezos has spoken about the importance of opening up access to space, particularly for young scientists and explorers.

"This is about building a road to space so that future generations can do incredible things in space," Bezos said Monday on the "TODAY" show.

Bezos, Branson and Musk have all faced backlash for what some consider to be ego-driven or frivolous ventures. But for Jim Cantrell, CEO of Phantom Space, an Arizona-based startup that aims to build and launch commercial satellites, the criticisms don't take into account the potential long-term benefits of investing in space technologies.

"These guys are doing something that they think is fundamental to the future of humanity, and this is just an initial step," said Cantrell, a former executive at SpaceX.

"It's entrepreneurs who have helped solve a lot of the problems on Earth," he said. "People ought to welcome this spirit of exploration, because it's the same kind of mentalities that found cures for diseases and gave us better medicines."


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