By Eric M. Johnson
VAN HORN, Texas (Reuters) — Jeff Bezos, the world's richest person, and three crewmates launched into space on Tuesday morning aboard Blue Origin's New Shepard spacecraft for a suborbital flight.
The American billionaire flew on a roughly 11-minute voyage to the edge of space, nine days after Briton Richard Branson was aboard his competing space tourism company Virgin Galactic's successful inaugural suborbital flight from New Mexico.
There were generally clear skies with a few patchy clouds on a cool morning for the launch.
Bezos, wearing a blue flight suit and cowboy hat, and the other passengers climbed into an SUV vehicle for a short drive to the launch pad before walking up a tower and getting aboard the gleaming white spacecraft, with a blue feather design on its side. Each passenger rang a shiny bell before boarding the craft's capsule.
"They are in for the flight of a lifetime," launch presenter Ariane Cornell of Blue Origin said on a live webcast.
Branson got to space first, but Bezos was due to fly higher — 62 miles (100 km) for Blue Origin compared to 53 miles (86 km) for Virgin Galactic — in what experts call the world's first unpiloted space flight with an all-civilian crew. It represents Blue Origin's first crewed flight to space.
Bezos, founder of ecommerce company Amazon.com Inc, and his brother Mark Bezos, a private equity executive, were joined by two others. Pioneering female aviator Wally Funk, 82, and recent high school graduate Oliver Daemen, 18, became the oldest and youngest people to reach space.
New Shepard blasted off just after 8 a.m. CDT (1300 GMT) from Blue Origin's Launch Site One facility about 20 miles (32 km) outside the rural Texas town of Van Horn.
"I am excited, but not anxious. We'll see how I feel when I'm strapped into my seat," Bezos told Fox Business Network on Monday. "… We're ready. The vehicle's ready."
The flight coincides with the anniversary of Americans Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin becoming the first humans to walk on the moon, on July 20, 1969.
Funk was one of the so-called Mercury 13 group of women who trained to become NASA astronauts in the early 1960s but was passed over because of her gender. Daemen, Blue Origin's first paying customer, is set to study physics and innovation management in the Netherlands. His father, who heads investment management firm Somerset Capital Partners, was on site to watch his son fly to space.
The launch will also be witnessed by members of the Bezos family and Blue Origin employees, and a few spectators gathered along the highway before dawn.
MINUTES OF WEIGHTLESSNESS
New Shepard is a 60-foot-tall (18.3-meters-tall) and fully autonomous rocket-and-capsule combo that cannot be piloted from inside the spacecraft. It is completely computer-flown and will have none of Blue Origin's staff astronauts or trained personnel onboard.
Virgin Galactic used a space plane with a pair of pilots onboard.
New Shepard hurtled at speeds upwards of 2,200 miles (3,540 km) per hour to an altitude of about 62 miles (100 km), the so-called Kármán line set by an international aeronautics body as defining the boundary between Earth's atmosphere and space.
After the capsule separated from the booster, the crew unbuckled for a few minutes of weightlessness. Then the capsule fell back to Earth under parachutes, using a last-minute retro-thrust system that expeled a "pillow of air" for a soft landing in the Texas desert.
The reusable booster has already flown twice to space.
The launch is another step in the race to establish a space tourism sector that Swiss investment bank UBS estimates will reach $3 billion annually in a decade. Another billionaire tech mogul, Elon Musk, plans to send an all-civilian crew on a several-day orbital mission on his Crew Dragon capsule in September.
On Twitter, Musk wished the Blue Origin crew "best of luck" for the launch.
Blue Origin aims for the first of two more passenger flights this year to happen in September or October.
Blue Origin appears to have a reservoir of future customers. More than 6,000 people from at least 143 countries entered an auction to become the first paying customer. The auction winner, who made a $28 million bid, dropped out of Tuesday's flight, opening the way for Daemen. Virgin Galactic has said 600 people have booked reservations, priced at about $250,000 per ticket.
Branson has said he aims ultimately to lower the price to about $40,000 per seat.
Bezos has a net worth of $206 billion according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. He stepped down this month as Amazon CEO but remains its executive chairman.
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Van Horn, Texas; Additional reporting Radhika Anilkumar; Editing by Will Dunham and Timothy Heritage)
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