Jeff Bezos has become the second billionaire this month to reach the edge of space, and he did so aboard a rocket built by Blue Origin, a company he launched.
The founder of Amazon, who stepped down as CEO earlier this month, lifted off early Tuesday with three crewmates on the maiden flight of Blue Origin's New Shepard launch vehicle.
Riding with Bezos on the 11-minute flight were be his brother, Mark Bezos, as well as the oldest person to into space, 82-year-old pioneering female aviator Wally Funk. Wally was a member of the Mercury female astronaut candidate programme, the programme was unfortunately discontinued.
They were joined by Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old physics student who became the youngest person to join the ranks of the astronauts. Daemen, whose seat was paid for by his father Joes, the CEO of Somerset Capital Partners, was put on the crew after the winner of an anonymous $28 million auction for the flight had to postpone due to a scheduling conflict.
The date of July 20 for the inaugural flight is significant – it's the same day in 1969 that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin aboard Apollo 11's Eagle became the first humans to land on the moon.
New Shepard's suborbital flight was designed to take the crew past the Kármán Line, the internationally-recognized boundary of space, at nearly 330,000 feet, or roughly 100 kilometres above the Earth. This flight will give Bezos and Blue Origin bragging rights over Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson, whose flight earlier this month aboard Unity hit a peak altitude of around 282,000 feet, surpassing NASA's designated Earth-Space boundary of 50 miles, but falling well short of the Kármán Line.
Besides the altitude, the New Shepard launch has some other key differences with Branson's July 11 flight: instead of lifting off from a pad, the Virgin Galactic vehicle was dropped from under a specially designed aircraft at about 50,000 feet before firing its ascent engines. The Virgin Galactic spacecraft also glided back to Earth for a Space-Shuttle-like runway landing.
By contrast, the 60-foot tall New Shepard launches like a conventional rocket and its capsule is designed to return home dangling from three parachutes in a manner similar to NASA's human space flights of the 1960s and 70s. However, its booster returns to the pad for a soft touchdown so that it can be reused later. The capsule, with Bezos and his crewmates aboard, came back to the high plains of Texas using braking rockets, instead of splashing down at sea.
New Shepard, which is fully autonomous, is named after Alan Shepard, who in 1961 became the first American into space.
With Bezos' flight complete, Elon Musk, the head of SpaceX, is left as the odd man out in the billionaire space race. Even so, Musk's SpaceX, which has flown astronauts to the International Space Station, is a heavyweight in the commercial space business compared with either Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin.
Branson and Bezos are hoping to tap into the potentially lucrative market for space tourism, while Musk is more focused on working with NASA, gaining market share in the satellite launch industry, and on his dream to send humans to Mars. Even so, Musk turned up to watch Branson's flight and has reportedly put down a $10,000 deposit to reserve a seat to fly on a future Virgin Galactic flight, where tickets are thought to go for $250,000 a pop, but it's unknown if or when he will buckle in and blast off.