Early this morning, from their Launch Site One facility in West Texas, Blue Origin made history as it conducted the first crewed flight of its New Shepard launch vehicle. The crew consisted of four commercial astronauts: Blue Origin and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, aerospace pioneer Wally Funk, and 18-year old student from The Netherlands Oliver Daemon.
The flight was a major milestone for the company, for commercial aerospace, and for civilian spaceflight. It was the culmination of years of development, which entered a new phase when Bezos announced that he was stepping down as CEO of Amazon to take a more hands-on role. The flight was also historic because it involved the oldest (Wally Funk, 82-years old) and youngest (Oliver Daemon, 18-years old) astronauts to ever take flight.
The flight began at 08:12 AM CST (06:12 AM PST; 09:12 AM EST) and saw the New Shepard lift off from the company’s facility in Van Horn, Texas. By 08:15 AM, mission control reported the successful separation of the RSS First Step capsule from the first stage booster, which returned to the launch site shortly thereafter. A minute later, the capsule reached its apogee of 100 km (62 mi) – the Kármán Line – where the crew experienced four minutes of weightlessness.
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By 08:22 AM, the capsule made a soft landing about a minute after the chutes deployed and slowed the capsule’s descent to a smooth 26 km/h (16 mph). By 09:45 AM, the post-flight press conference (which was also broadcast live via Blue Origin’s website) began and featured the crew sharing what the experience was like, getting their commercial astronaut pins, and showing some of the mementos they took with them to space.
While every member of the crew had inspiring words to share, it was Wally Funk’s infectious, energetic nature that really roused the crowd. Funk was a very special guest on the flight, having been a member of the Mercury 13 – aka. the First Lady Astronauts Trainees (FLATs) program – in 1960/61. Like her fellow trainees, Funk went through the same medical tests and training as their male counterparts who went on to become the Mercury Seven.
Funk was at the top of her class and outperformed the male astronauts in every category, but never got to go to space due to the nature of astronaut selection (which excluded women based on their lack of military training). When asked what the experience was like, she stood up with a hoot and conveyed the significance of it all with gusto:
“I’ve been waiting a long time to finally get it up there and I’ve done a lot of astronaut training through the world – Russia, America – and I could always speak the guys on what they were doing. Because I was going stronger and I’ve always done everything on my own, and… I didn’t do dolls! I did outside stuff. And I flew airplanes, and I have 19,000-some hours [flying time].
“I loved it, and I love being here with all of you, and your family. The four of us, we had a great time. It was wonderful. I want to go again, fast! And then when I got off the ship they gave me the tail end of one of the balloons, and I’m gonna cherish that forever.”
Bezos was also sure to introduce a number of very special guests that had attended the launch, which included his own mother and Laura and Julie Shepard. Their father, famed astronaut Alan Shepard (who passed away in his home in California in 1998) was the first American astronaut to go to space in 1963, and is the namesake of the spacecraft that flew Bezos and his colleagues to space today:
“Alan Shepard was an Apollo moonwalker and has a gigantic list of accomplishments. But for our purposes today, the thing that is most interesting about Alan Shepard is that he is the namesake for this vehicle, New Shepard, and that is because the mission profile that we did today is very similar to the one that Alan flew when he became the first American in space… We are very honored to have you guys here and thank you for joining us, it’s incredible.”
Like Branson, Bezos also used the post-flight press conference to announce a new philanthropic initiative, called the “Courage and Civility Award.” This award recognizes “leaders who aim high and pursue solutions with courage who always do so with civility,” said Bezos, and awards $100 million to recipients so they can give that money to the charities and nonprofits of their choice.
The first two awardees, who were named at the conference, are José Andrés and Van Jones. Anders, a world-renowned chef, is also the founder of World Central Kitchen, which mobilizes volunteer chefs to disaster areas to prepare hot meals for people in need. Van Jones is the famed political commentator, author, lawyer, and founder of several nonprofits dedicated to reforming the criminal justice system, who also helped draft the First Step Act (FSA).
However, perhaps the biggest takeaway from the post-flight press conference (at least for those with a stake in the commercial space sector) was Bezos’ hints about what is yet to come. In recent years, Blue Origin has lost ground to competitors like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, which have managed to successfully conduct launch tests and secure lucrative government contracts.
With his decision to step down as CEO of Amazon in order to focus on Blue Origin and other projects, Bezos has indicated that he intends to make Blue Origin not only competitive but lucrative. The question of “what’s next” came up in the context of Blue Origin’s development architecture, which includes developing Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) vehicles, the liquid hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine, and related technologies.
In response, Bezos addressed how today’s test is paving the way for future flights with the company’s other proposed launch vehicles:
“The architecture and the technology we have chosen is complete overkill for suborbital tourism mission. We have chosen the vertical landing architecture Because of scales. It’s an architecture that can grow to very large size, so we want to have we want to have experience with architectures that can grow big, to New Glenn and one day to New Armstrong. So to have the idea that you want to build big from the beginning lets you choose an architecture because the whole point of doing this is to get practice. And other kinds of architectures don’t scale in the same way too very large size.”
Like the New Shepard, the New Glenn and New Armstrong are appropriately named after famous astronauts who achieved similar mission profiles. The New Glenn, named after the first American astronaut to orbit Earth (John Glenn), this 2-stage rocket will deliver payloads and crew to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The New Armstrong, named after the first man on the Moon, will be the heavy-launch system used to send payloads and astronauts to the lunar surface.
The New Glenn will rely on seven BE-4 engines to power the first stage booster, which rely on liquid natural gas (LNG) and liquid oxygen (LOX) fuel. The second stage will rely on a single two re-ignitable B-3E liquid hydrogen and LOX engines (a variant of the engine that powers the New Shepard). While no technical specs are available for the New Armstrong yet, Bezos has indicated that it will be the company’s most powerful ascent vehicle to date.
Be sure to check out the video of post-flight press conference, courtesy of Blue Origin !
Further Reading: Blue Origin