American businessman Jeff Bezos is set to become the second billionaire to self-fund a trip to space this month when he blasts off Tuesday morning from a remote desert launch site in Texas.
The 57-year-old founder of e-commerce giant Amazon and three companions will fly into space aboard the New Shepard rocket built by his company Blue Origin, which he founded in 2000 with the goal of creating permanent space colonies where people will live and work.
New Shepard, named after Alan Shepard, America’s first astronaut, is scheduled to blast off shortly after sunrise (300 GMT, 7 a.m. Washington time) and travel at three times the speed of sound before the capsule separates from the rocket and floats above the Earth for three to four minutes, allowing Bezos and his three crewmates to experience weightlessness. The capsule will then re-enter the atmosphere and make a parachute landing near the launch site, while the rocket will make an automated vertical landing several miles away.
Bezos will be joined by his brother, Mark, plus 82-year-old aviation pioneer Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk and 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, making them the oldest and youngest persons to fly into space.
Funk was one of the so-called Mercury 13, the first group of women to train for the U.S. space program in the 1960s but were denied a chance to become astronauts because of the gender.
The Dutch-born Daemen was a last-minute addition to the crew after the anonymous winner of a $28 million auction for a seat on New Shepard dropped out, citing a scheduling conflict. Daemen’s father was a runner-up in the auction, which makes the young astronaut Blue Origin’s first paying customer.
Bezos hopes New Shepard will reach an altitude of 106 kilometers above the Earth, past the so-called Karman line (100 kilometers above Earth), which is recognized by international aviation and aerospace federations as the threshold of space. It will also surpass the 85 kilometer mark reached by British billionaire Richard Branson on July 11 when he and five crewmates flew aboard his Virgin Galactic rocket-powered space plane.
Bezos, a fervent space enthusiast since watching the Apollo lunar missions in his youth, is heading into space on the 52nd anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 lunar landing.
During a television interview Monday, Bezos insisted that his goal was not about competition with Branson, but “about building a road to space so that future generations can do incredible things in space.”
Blue Origin’s first manned mission comes after 15 test flights of the New Shepard vehicle. Bob Smith, the company’s chief executive officer, says two more manned missions aboard New Shepard are planned by the end of this year if Tuesday’s flight is successful.
The company is also building a larger rocket, New Glenn — named after John Glenn, the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth — that will send both manned and unmanned vehicles into space.