VAN HORN, Texas, July 20 (Reuters) – Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, soared about 66.5 miles (107 km) above the Texas desert aboard his company Blue Origin’s New Shepard launch vehicle on Tuesday and returned safely to Earth, a historic suborbital flight that helps to inaugurate a new era of private commercial space tourism.
“Best day ever,” Bezos, accompanied by the world’s oldest and youngest space travelers, said after his space capsule descended with three large parachutes and touched down, kicking up a cloud of dust.
The 57-year-old American billionaire, wearing a blue flight suit and donning a cowboy hat, was joined by three crewmates for a trip to the edge of space lasting 10 minutes and 10 seconds. After landing, Bezos and the other crew members exchanged hugs and popped champagne, spraying each other.
“Astronaut Bezos in my seat – happy, happy, happy,” Bezos said in response to a mission control status check after the crew members buckled back in aboard New Shepard’s capsule following a few minutes of weightlessness in space.
The fully autonomous 60-foot-tall (18.3-meters-tall) gleaming white spacecraft, with a blue feather design on its side, ignited its BE-3 engines for a vertical liftoff from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One facility about 20 miles (32 km) outside the rural town of Van Horn. There were generally clear skies with a few patchy clouds on a cool morning for the launch.
Bezos, founder of ecommerce company Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O), and his brother Mark Bezos, a private equity executive, were joined by two others. Pioneering female aviator Wally Funk, 82, and recent high school graduate Oliver Daemen, 18, became the oldest and youngest people to reach space.
The flight came nine days after Briton Richard Branson was aboard his competing space tourism company Virgin Galactic’s successful inaugural suborbital flight from New Mexico. The two flights give credibility and inject enthusiasm into the fledgling space tourism industry that Swiss bank UBS estimates will be worth $3 billion annually in a decade.
Bezos, who founded Blue Origin two decades ago, described the company’s first crewed space flight as a step toward an ambitious future. Blue Origin plans for two more passenger flights this year. Bezos said it has not determined its future pace of flights after that but said it is approaching $100 million in private sales.
“The demand is very, very high,” Bezos told a news conference.
“We’re going to build a road to space so that our kids and their kids can build a future. … We need to do that to solve the problems here on Earth,” Bezos added.
Bezos said the architecture and technology for the flight was “overkill for a little tourism mission.”
“Big things start small,” Bezos added.
‘PILLOW OF AIR’
New Shepard hurtled at speeds reaching 2,233 miles (3,595 km) per hour, exceeding the so-called Kármán line – 62 miles (100 km) – set by an international aeronautics body to define the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space.
After the capsule separated from the booster, the crew unbuckled to experience weightlessness. The capsule then returned to Earth under parachutes, using a retro-thrust system that expelled a “pillow of air” for a soft landing.
Bezos gave a thumbs-up sign inside the capsule after landing, stepped out to cheers, then exchanged high-fives with some of the roughly two dozen family members and company employees on hand.
Branson got to space first, but Bezos flew higher – Virgin Galactic managed an altitude of 53 miles (86 km) – in what experts called the world’s first unpiloted space flight with an all-civilian crew.
The flight came on the anniversary of Americans Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin becoming the first humans to walk on the moon, on July 20, 1969. New Shepard is named for Alan Shepard, who in 1961 became the first American in space.
Funk was one of the so-called Mercury 13 group of women who trained to become NASA astronauts in the early 1960s but was passed over because of her gender.
“I’ve been waiting a long time,” Funk said afterward. “I want to go again – fast.”
Daemen, Blue Origin’s first paying customer, is set to study physics and innovation management at college in the Netherlands. His father, an investment executive, was on site to watch his son fly.
New Shepard is a rocket-and-capsule combo that cannot be piloted from inside the spacecraft. Virgin Galactic used a space plane with a pair of pilots onboard. The reusable Blue Origin booster, which had previously flown twice to space, landed safely after the flight.
The launch represented another step in the fiercely competitive race to establish a space tourism sector. Another billionaire tech mogul, Elon Musk, plans to send an all-civilian crew on a several-day orbital mission on his Crew Dragon capsule in September.
“Well done,” Branson wrote on Twitter, congratulating Bezos and his crewmates.
Musk earlier wished Blue Origins crew “best of luck.”
“The most profound piece of it for me was looking out at the Earth and looking at the Earth’s atmosphere,” Bezos said, noting how the experience underscored the planet’s beauty and fragility.