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Blue Origin Completes First Crewed Flight From West Texas

The private space company owned by billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos blasted off from a launch site north of Van Horn, Texas Tuesday morning, with Bezos and his brother on board, as well as the oldest and youngest people to ever fly into space.

By Travis Bubenik

Another billionaire blasted off toward the cosmos on Tuesday, this time from a remote site in the West Texas desert, where journalists from across the world gathered to witness the latest milestone in a privatized space race fueled by immense wealth.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ brief flight from his Blue Origin facility north of Van Horn to the edge of space came after years of rocket tests from Blue Origin’s secretive “Launch Site One” and just days after fellow billionaire Richard Branson launched a similar flight. The flight, aboard the company’s reusable rocket New Shepard, was Blue Origin’s first launch with a crew on board. 

Tuesday’s flight also marked the first time Blue Origin had opened the facility’s doors to anyone but employees and special guests.

Before liftoff, as the sun rose slowly over the site’s sprawling Chihuahuan Desert landscape, satellite trucks from the nation’s major cable news channels lined the edge of a helicopter pad outside a hangar, cameras fixed on the launch pad. Inside, reporters from around the world milled about, live-blogging the morning’s developments as they sipped coffee poured from Blue Origin-branded carafes and pecked at breakfast sandwiches wrapped in Blue Origin-branded foil.

The crew for Tuesday’s flight included Bezos, his brother Mark, an 18-year-old Dutch student who likely paid millions for his ticket, and Wally Funk — the 82-year-old aviation pioneer who was among a group of women who trained as astronauts in the 1960’s but were not accepted by NASA because of their gender.

The team blasted off on Blue Origin’s “New Shepard” rocket at about 8:15 a.m. Central Time after a brief delay and returned to the Chihuahuan Desert floor 10 minutes and 10 seconds later, landing with a soft thud in a cloud of Culberson County dust.

"Welcome back, New Shepard, a beautiful rocket that provided a beautiful flight to space," exclaimed Ariane Cornell, the company’s director of astronaut sales.

While the flight was a big step forward for Blue Origin’s plan to offer routine space flights to wealthy tourists, it also represented a notable milestone in an ongoing space race between Bezos and rivals like Branson and Tesla founder Elon Musk, whose company Space-X operates out of South Texas.

Bezos and Musk’s companies have competed for access to government contracts, with Blue Origin recently filing a formal protest to Space-X’s award of a NASA contract, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Ahead of Tuesday’s flight, Bezos was asked by a CNN reporter to respond to critics who argue he should be focusing his time and extreme wealth on solving problems here on Earth.

“We have to do both,” Bezos said. “What our job at Blue Origin is to do, and what this space tourism mission is about, is having a mission where we can practice so much that we get really good at operational space travel.”

Bezos told CNN that work is aimed at building a “road to space” that could inspire future generations “to do amazing things there.”

“And those amazing things will solve problems here on Earth,” he said.

The rocket launch Tuesday also showcased the ways in which Bezos’ once-secretive company has begun to peel back its layers, although in a carefully orchestrated, marketing-savvy manner that has allowed Blue Origin to control its own narrative.

Journalists were set to attend a post-launch press conference with the crew members on Tuesday morning, but they were not allowed close to the action as the rocket lifted off and as the crew touched back down. Instead, Blue Origin’s own photographers captured images of the crew members emerging from the capsule and hugging their coworkers and friends. The day’s action was most vividly documented on the company’s own live stream, narrated by a Blue Origin sales representative.

During an on-stage discussion after the launch, the company showed video clips of the crew members playing around in the weightlessness of space — doing flips, throwing skittles at each other — and of the crew emerging from the craft’s capsule.

“Everyone on the ground was very emotional, we were just having fun,” Oliver Daemen, the Dutch student, said of that moment.

Responding to a reporter’s question, Bezos said the company plans to launch two similar flights this year.

“We want the cadence to be very high,” he said. “We’re approaching $100 million in private sales already, and the demand is very high.”

In recent days, company representatives said they had already been in talks with wealthy participants in a for a ride on New Shepard. The still-anonymous winner of that auction wasn’t able to attend Tuesday’s flight due to a “scheduling conflict,” the company said.

“We hope to have a flight at the end of September, first of October, for our next flight,” Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said during a briefing with reporters on Sunday.

Editor's note: an earlier version of this story said the rocket flight lasted 10 minutes and 20 seconds. That has been updated to read 10 minutes and 10 seconds, the length that Blue Origin in its recap of the flight.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.