What’s Next for Blue Origin After Today’s Successful Flight?
Early this morning, from their Launch Site One facility in West Texas, Blue Origin made history as it conducted the first crewed flight of its New Shepardlaunch vehicle. The crew consisted of four commercial astronauts: Blue Origin and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, aerospace pioneer Wally Funk, and 18-year old student from The Netherlands Oliver Daemon.
The flight was a major milestone for the company, for commercial aerospace, and for civilian spaceflight. It was the culmination of years of development, which entered a new phase when Bezos announced that he was stepping down as CEO of Amazon to take a more hands-on role. The flight was also historic because it involved the oldest (Wally Funk, 82-years old) and youngest (Oliver Daemon, 18-years old) astronauts to ever take flight.
The flight began at 08:12 AM CST (06:12 AM PST; 09:12 AM EST) and saw the New Shepard lift off from the company’s facility in Van Horn, Texas. By 08:15 AM, mission control reported the successful separation of the RSS First Step capsule from the first stage booster, which returned to the launch site shortly thereafter. A minute later, the capsule reached its apogee of 100 km (62 mi) – the Kármán Line – where the crew experienced four minutes of weightlessness.
By 08:22 AM, the capsule made a soft landing about a minute after the chutes deployed and slowed the capsule’s descent to a smooth 26 km/h (16 mph). By 09:45 AM, the post-flight press conference (which was also broadcast live via Blue Origin’s website) began and featured the crew sharing what the experience was like, getting their commercial astronaut pins, and showing some of the mementos they took with them to space.
While every member of the crew had inspiring words to share, it was Wally Funk’s infectious, energetic nature that really roused the crowd. Funk was a very special guest on the flight, having been a member of the Mercury 13 – aka. the First Lady Astronauts Trainees (FLATs) program – in 1960/61. Like her fellow trainees, Funk went through the same medical tests and training as their male counterparts who went on to become the Mercury Seven.
Funk was at the top of her class and outperformed the male astronauts in every category, but never got to go to space due to the nature of astronaut selection (which excluded women based on their lack of military training). When asked what the experience was like, she stood up with a hoot and conveyed the significance of it all with gusto:
“I’ve been waiting a long time to finally get it up there and I’ve done a lot of astronaut training through the world – Russia, America – and I could always speak the guys on what they were doing. Because I was going stronger and I’ve always done everything on my own, and… I didn’t do dolls! I did outside stuff. And I flew airplanes, and I have 19,000-some hours [flying time].
“I loved it, and I love being here with all of you, and your family. The four of us, we had a great time. It was wonderful. I want to go again, fast! And then when I got off the ship they gave me the tail end of one of the balloons, and I’m gonna cherish that forever.”
Bezos was also sure to introduce a number of very special guests that had attended the launch, which included his own mother and Laura and Julie Shepard. Their father, famed astronaut Alan Shepard (who passed away in his home in California in 1998) was the first American astronaut to go to space in 1963, and is the namesake of the spacecraft that flew Bezos and his colleagues to space today:
“Alan Shepard was an Apollo moonwalker and has a gigantic list of accomplishments. But for our purposes today, the thing that is most interesting about Alan Shepard is that he is the namesake for this vehicle, New Shepard, and that is because the mission profile that we did today is very similar to the one that Alan flew when he became the first American in space… We are very honored to have you guys here and thank you for joining us, it’s incredible.”
Like Branson, Bezos also used the post-flight press conference to announce a new philanthropic initiative, called the “Courage and Civility Award.” This award recognizes “leaders who aim high and pursue solutions with courage who always do so with civility,” said Bezos, and awards $100 million to recipients so they can give that money to the charities and nonprofits of their choice.
The first two awardees, who were named at the conference, are José Andrés and Van Jones. Anders, a world-renowned chef, is also the founder of World Central Kitchen, which mobilizes volunteer chefs to disaster areas to prepare hot meals for people in need. Van Jones is the famed political commentator, author, lawyer, and founder of several nonprofits dedicated to reforming the criminal justice system, who also helped draft the First Step Act (FSA).