Billionaire Jeff Bezos and his three crewmates are in a final crash course on space flight.
The Amazon founder will blast off on Tuesday aboard his company Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft, a 60-foot-tall and rocket-and-capsule combo that is completely autonomous, meaning no pilot will be aboard. Instead, the rocket will be controlled by flight engineers on the ground from a facility in the desert plains of west Texas.
Bezos and his crew — which includes the oldest and youngest people to ever go to space, 82-year-old female aviator Wally Funk and 18-year-old physics student Oliver Daemen — won’t be gone long. The flight is scheduled to last just 11 minutes. Bezos brother Mark rounds out the passengers.
Blue Origin says its spacecraft is ready to go.
“Blue Origin has been flight testing New Shepard and its redundant safety systems since 2012. The program has had 15 successful consecutive missions including three successful escape tests, showing the crew escape system can activate safely in any phase of flight,” the company says on its website.
The Shepard spacecraft, named after Alan Shepard, an astronaut who in 1961 became the first American in space, will soar 62 miles up before the capsule re-enters the atmosphere and returns to Earth by parachute.
Bezos will best Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson, who earlier this month flew to 53 miles above Earth.
Before Branson’s flight, Team Bezos threw some shade at the billionaire.
“Only 4% of the world recognizes a lower limit of 80 km or 50 miles as the beginning of space. New Shepard flies above both boundaries. One of the many benefits of flying with Blue Origin,” they wrote on Twitter.
And they tossed out another dig: “From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name. For 96% of the world’s population, space begins 100 km up at the internationally recognized Kármán line.”
The Kármán line is named after Theodore von Kármán, a Hungarian American engineer and physicist who was active in aeronautics and astronautics and lived from 1881 to 1963. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), an international body for aeronautics and astronautics that sets standards and keeps records, defines the Kármán line as the altitude of 100 kilometers — or 62 miles (about 330,000 feet) — above Earth’s mean sea level.
But the U.S. puts the line of outer space at 50 miles. “It’s also roughly the altitude that was used by the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s when it gave out astronaut wings to test pilots who flew over 50 miles (80 km) high,” according to astronomy.com.
On July 10, Branson won the space race among his fellow billionaires, becoming the first earthling to soar into space in his own vehicle. In a roughly 14 minutes flight, Branson, 71, the founder of Virgin Airlines and now Virgin Galactic, beat out Bezos and fellow billionaire Elon Musk, whose SpaceX company plans to soar even higher in a September flight.
About 500 people, including Branson’s wife, children, and grandchildren who had gathered at a runway in Truth or Consequences, N.M., cheered when the space plane landed.
The flight went like this: The mothership WhiteKnightTwo took off with SpaceShipTwo — also known as VSS Unity — attached in between its twin fuselages. At about 46,000 feet, the mothership then released SpaceShipTwo, which ignited its rocket engines, climbing vertically. The spacecraft soared at Mach 3 — more than 2,300 miles per hour — to its apogee at about 282,000 feet (53.4 miles) high. Then it began its descent and the four passengers — who did not wear spacesuits or helmets and had no need to supplemental oxygen — experienced weightlessness for a couple minutes. SpaceShipTwo then re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere — causing a double sonic boom — and glided back to land at a runway.