Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin on Saturday launched four presumably wealthy adventurers and two sponsored contest winners, including a Mexican-born YouTube personality, on a supersonic dash to the edge of space, chalking up the company's fifth sub-orbital tourist flight in less than a year.
Perched atop a powerful hydrogen-fueled single-stage booster, the New Shepard blasted off from Bezos' sprawling west Texas ranch and launch site at 9:25 a.m. EDT, kicking off a 10-minute 5-second up-and-down thrill ride, briefly carrying the passengers out of the discernible atmosphere.
As the capsule arced over the top of its trajectory 66.5 miles up, the passengers experienced about three minutes of weightlessness, enjoying spectacular hemispheric views of the Earth below before the ship fell back to Earth for a parachute-assisted touchdown.
"The view was unbelievable," said Victor Vescovo, a mountain climber, jet pilot and submarine operator. "To see the complete curvature of the Earth, and seeing the thin skein of the atmosphere and this beautiful blue-and-brown planet that we have, and then the blackness of space and the brilliant sun. To have that right in front of you ... was truly a transformational experience."
Vescovo was joined by three other paying passengers: investor-engineer Evan Dick, Blue Origin's first repeat customer; Hamish Harding, British chairman of Action Aviation and a veteran pilot; and Jaison Robinson, co-founder of Dream Variations Ventures and a finalist on "Survivor: Samoa" in 2009.
"For me, there was a lot of just introspective moments where I was thinking about the fact that my father was from 1943 Mississippi and my mother was born in 1946 Georgia, remembering the dogs and the fire hoses, and now their son is sitting on a spaceship," said Robinson, the 18th African American to make a spaceflight.
"So I closed my eyes a lot, just thought about how far we've come. And then enjoyed the ride and the experience."
Rounding out the crew were two contest winners: Brazilian Victor Correa Hespanha, a civil engineer whose seat was paid for by the "Crypto Space Agency," and Katya Echazarreta, a 26-year-old Mexican-born YouTube personality working on a master's in electrical and computer engineering at Johns Hopkins University. She is the youngest American to fly in space.
Echazarreta's seat was paid for in part by Space For Humanity, a non-profit founded by New Shepard veteran Dylan Taylor, who flew to space with Dick last December. She was selected from more than 7,000 applicants representing more than 100 countries.
"I've been dreaming about going to space my entire life and even just the drive to get into the rocket was really emotional for all of us," Echazarreta said after the flight. "I was just trying to picture what it would be like, but I can assure you that nobody can truly imagine it until they experience it!"
All six said they would fly again if given the opportunity.
"I can't think of anything more addicting than being on a rocket ship going up into space," said Vescovo. "We'd love to do the next step, which is to go into orbit and then to spend an extended period of time in space. ... I'd go tomorrow if I could."
The launching came two weeks later than originally planned because of work to fix problems with an unspecified backup system. Like Elon Musk's SpaceX, Bezos' Blue Origin volunteers little in the way of technical information and no other details about the cause of the launch delay were immediately available.
But the crew took the slip in stride.
"Safety first! Grateful for the Blue Origin team and their willingness to put us first," tweeted Echazarreta. "Can't wait for the launch!"
She got her wish Saturday with a picture-perfect launch, the 21st for the New Shepard program and the fifth carrying passengers. Bezos took off on the first crewed mission in July 2021.
All told, Blue Origin has now launched 25 non-professionals on sub-orbital flights to the edge of space, including Bezos, his brother Mark, actor William Shatner, aviation pioneer Wally Funk, TV personality Michael Strahan and the daughter of Alan Shepard, the first American in space.
The NS-21 mission marked the ninth piloted commercial, non-government sub-orbital spaceflight in a high-stakes competition between Bezos' Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, owned by fellow billionaire Richard Branson.
Virgin has launched four piloted flights of its winged spaceplane VSS Unity, most recently sending up Branson, two pilots and three company crewmates last July 11. All of the crew members to date have been Virgin employees.
Branson personally beat Bezos into space by a few days, but Blue Origin now appears to be well ahead in the race to turn space tourism into an operational business.
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