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Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is set to make history Tuesday as the second private citizen to be launched into orbit on a private spaceship/capsule — dubbed the "New Shepard." (Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson already beat him to the punch on that count.)
With that said, Bezos and his spacefaring company, Blue Origin, are still set to break a "space tourism" record during their first crewed mission by traveling to an altitude of 100 kilometers (or 62 miles) above the Earth, making Bezos the fourth billionaire to float among the stars. As CNBC notes, this is Blue Origin's first real test after 15 successful trial flights since 2012.
“As an engineer you can never dispel the gremlins of unknown unknowns,” Gary Lai, senior director of the New Shepard design crew told The Washington Post. “There are always going to be things that you wonder, ‘Well, what if I forgot about this?’ But in terms of going into this flight, I’m struggling to think of how much more thorough we could have been and yet still be committed to flying.”
How and when to watch
Barring any delays related to weather or other random variables, liftoff is set for Tuesday, July 20, at 9 a.m. ET from a remote launch site in the West Texas desert. A livestream on Blue Origin's website is scheduled to kick off at 7:30 a.m. ET. Bob Smith (Blue Origin CEO), Steve Lanius (Lead Flight Director) Audrey Powers (Vice President, New Shepard Operations), Chris Jaeger (Chief Engineer, New Shepard), and Ariane Cornell (Director of Astronaut Sales) will hold a pre-launch briefing with final details about vehicle readiness, flight and safety preparedness, and astronaut training.
The flight itself is expected to last for only 11 minutes after which time the Shepard will safely return to the ground via a combination of parachutes and thrusters. Blue Origin trucks are standing by to meet the capsule and let the passengers out.
Christened after a member of the Mercury Seven, Alan Shepard, the New Shepard is "a reusable suborbital rocket system designed to take astronauts and research payloads past the Kármán line — the internationally recognized boundary of space," reads the Blue Origin website.
The pressurized capsule, which features the largest windows ever to go into space, is able to fit a total of six passengers when at capacity. In fact, every passenger gets their own window seat! In addition, the capsule is fully able to guide itself without the need for a trained pilot. Put in Blue Origin's own words: "Every person onboard is a passenger."
When atop its accompanying rocket, New Shepard stands 60 feet tall. With a reusable capsule and rocket booster, the entire apparatus is "powered by a single liquid-fueled BE-3 engine, generating 110,000 pound feet of thrust at sea level and able to throttle down to less than 20 percent power for its slow, soft landings," writes CNBC.
Bezos will board his heaven-piercing vessel with three other individuals: Mark Bezos (Jeff's brother), Wally Funk, and Oliver Daemen. Now in her early 80s, Funk — a barrier-breaking female pilot who was unable to become an astronaut in the 1960s — is on course to make history as the oldest person to ever travel into space. At 18, Daemen — a student from the Netherlands — will be the youngest.
"No one has waited longer," Bezos wrote on Instagram earlier this month. "In 1961, Wally Funk was at the top of her class as part of the 'Mercury 13' Woman in Space Program. Despite completing their training, the program was cancelled, and none of the thirteen flew. It’s time. Welcome to the crew, Wally. We’re excited to have you fly with us on July 20th as our honored guest."
While she never got to travel out of the atmosphere, Funk still broke new ground back on Earth as the first female FAA inspector and first female NTSB air safety investigator.
"I don’t think I’ve realized yet how special it is to become the youngest person ever, and it's such an opportunity for me to do that," Daemen said on GMA. "And also to be an example for other kids. It's so amazing for me to go, I still can’t believe it."
"We thank the auction winner for their generous support of Club for the Future and are honored to welcome Oliver to fly with us on New Shepard,” Bob Smith said in a statement last week. “This marks the beginning of commercial operations for New Shepard, and Oliver represents a new generation of people who will help us build a road to space.”
Why it's a big deal
"What we're hoping to do is to build the road to space for the future generations," Bezos said during a Monday appearance on Good Morning America. "If we can get to that stage, then the things that the next generations will figure out how to do in space, how to benefit Earth with all those things in space ... that'll be amazing to see, so that's the real goal."
The goal, he explained, is to make space travel more affordable and accessible to every person on the planet. It's the same goal post for Elon Musk and SpaceX, who made history last November with the very first spaceflight to be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The Washington Post reports that if tomorrow's launch is successful, Blue Origin will oversee two more launches by the end of 2021 and six more in 2022. The company hopes that this is the start of "increasingly frequent human spaceflight missions on its New Shepard rocket that would fly space tourists on quick, suborbital jaunts through the atmosphere just past the edge of space."
Virgin Galactic is already taking reservations for trips into low-orbit, but seats aren't exactly cheap, costing $250,000 a head. The same goes for Blue Origin, which expects "tens of millions of dollars" in premium ticket sales once flights open to the wider public. Obviously, the wealthy segment of the population will get first dibs, but Smith promised more affordable options (think of the reduced price slots as riding coach) once the blossoming space tourism industry settles into itself.
“One of the reasons we are methodical and quiet is that we don’t have to say much,” Smith, Blue Origin's CEO, explained to the Post. “We want to make sure that our results actually speak for themselves. We want to be humble. We want to be trusted. We want to be somebody who actually speaks more with what we have done.”