This morning, as the sun climbed over a private spaceport in rural West Texas, a six-story-tall rocket lit its engines and lifted off, carrying a spacecraft with four people on board—the first passengers to ride Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket to the top of the sky. The rocket hurtled star-ward, and at about 250,000 feet the crew capsule separated from the booster and continued to the edge of the atmosphere, while the rocket fell back to Earth and executed a controlled vertical landing.
As the capsule climbed, the crew members unbuckled their seatbelts and floated in weightlessness for a few minutes, whooping excitedly as they took in the views out the windows. At 351,210 feet, not quite in orbit but well above the 62-mile line marking the internationally recognized boundary of space, the capsule began to fall. About ten minutes after launch, parachutes helped it safely alight back on Earth.
The flight carried a haphazard crew by spaceflight standards. One of the passengers was Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin and currently the world’s richest person. His brother Mark joined him for the inaugural flight. And perhaps outshining the Bezos brothers, at least for those versed in aerospace history, is Wally Funk, an 82-year old aviator who has dreamed of being an astronaut since the early days of NASA’s human spaceflight program—when she trained to be an astronaut and outperformed the seven men chosen for the Mercury program on many of the tests, but did not get a chance to go to space.
“It’s dark up here!” Funk exclaimed as she floated in space.
Completing the crew is Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old from the Netherlands, now the youngest person to visit space. Daemen’s father paid an undisclosed amount for his son to experience weightlessness, see the darkened sky, and gaze at Earth’s curved horizon for a few fleeting minutes.
“I’ve been waiting for years to see, when are they going to decide to fly humans?” says Laura Seward Forczyk, founder of the aerospace consulting firm Astralytical, about Blue Origin. “It’s nice that they’ve finally decided that now is the time—they’ve had this plan for years, so this is a long time coming.”
A small step toward a big dream
Tuesday’s 10-minute flight marks a milestone for Blue Origin. The company has been relatively secretive about the development of its spacecraft compared to industry rivals SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, and Virgin Galactic, helmed by Richard Branson. Like the latter, which flew Branson into space on July 11, Blue Origin plans to offer customer flights aboard New Shepard starting later this year. Those flights will allow up to six people at a time to experience the brief thrill ride to space, which includes some four minutes of weightlessness.
It’s not clear how hefty the price tag for that opportunity will be—but Blue Origin says it has a list of passengers waiting for their turn to make the parabolic journey. One of those is an anonymous customer who bid $28 million for a chance to fly on this inaugural flight but had to postpone the trip to space at the last minute because of “scheduling conflicts,” the company said.
Blue Origin also has loftier projects waiting in the wings. The company is designing a lunar lander and a larger rocket, called New Glenn, that could carry humans into Earth orbit and beyond—into the realms of space stations and satellites, of moonwalks and envisioned off-world futures.
Bezos has said he founded Blue Origin because he wants to help create a future where millions of people live in space, residing on lush, rotating manufactured worlds in orbit. Sending passengers on suborbital flights is a logical first step aligned with that vision, says industry analyst Carissa Christensen, founder and CEO of Bryce Space and Technology, an aerospace consulting firm.
“I take very literally what Jeff Bezos has said publicly, that he really believes in the importance and the value of human access to space, of broadening and expanding that access, of enabling a future where people live and work in space,” Christensen says. “There are plenty of ways for Jeff Bezos to spend his time and his treasure,” she notes, but he’s chosen to “put his personal finances into a launch company.”
Critics, however, are quick to point out that neither Blue Origin nor Virgin Galactic are really broadening access to space with these commercial flights—at least not yet. These first crews are populated by extremely wealthy individuals and their guests, and many experts question whether such suborbital flights are anything more than joyrides for the ultra-rich. After all, how accessible can space be if the price of a ticket is astronomical?
“Space remains a very elite place—a place that’s hard to get to, a place that’s impossible to reach for 99 percent of humans, and it’s just sort of the flavor of the elite that’s changing,” says space historian Jordan Bimm of the University of Chicago. “If it took ‘the right stuff’ to get to space in the 1960s, now it kind of takes the right friends—or the right bank accounts. It’s not the utopian vision of space that some people are trafficking in right now, as I see it.”
Blue Origin’s origin
Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, but the company stayed under the radar until the Amazon founder picked a spot to build a spaceport: the shrubby, sparsely populated desert just north of Van Horn, Texas, a town of about 2,000 that’s the seat of Culberson County. In 2003, local ranchers began getting persistent calls from a Seattle-based attorney representing an anonymous client who wanted to buy their land—and who had seemingly bottomless pockets. Some held out until the rising offers grew too lucrative to refuse. But by 2005, Bezos had accumulated 165,000 acres in the region (an area that has since nearly doubled), and dubbed the property “Corn Ranch.”
That same year, he visited Van Horn and revealed his grand design for the site north of town, surprising residents with his vision of a spaceport. From there, Bezos said, a new spaceship would launch, and it would serve as a step in his ultimate goal of sending millions of humans to live and work in space.
John Conoly, a longtime Culberson County judge, was impressed. “I have every confidence in the world he will do what he says he will do,” Conoly told The Associated Press in 2005. “I know he’s going to have some of the best minds for this project. He doesn’t do things halfway or second class.”
Step by step
Fast forward to today. Other than a handful of astronauts on the International Space Station, humans are still firmly planted on this planet. The same aura of mystery and determination continues to characterize Blue Origin, although the company has made some public forecasts about when milestones would be reached. Today’s flight, for example, was originally anticipated to occur in 2018.
It’s just one of many missed deadlines. But Blue Origin presses on.
“I see Jeff Bezos taking this sort of patient approach, where he doesn’t want the flashiness that you get from Branson or Musk. He’s happy to keep the failures under wraps and just sort of produce win-win-win-win and hope that adds up to something unstoppable,” Bimm says. “I think you have to look at the development of Amazon, and its sort of slow and steady and under-the-surface work that eventually emerged as this juggernaut.”
Fittingly, Blue Origin’s motto is gradatim ferociter, meaning “step by step, ferociously.” Its mascot is a tortoise, perhaps a reference to the plodding reptile that persevered and bested the faster, favored hare.
In November 2015, the company scored an unexpected win over SpaceX when it vertically landed a rocket booster for the first time in history—a huge step toward reusability, which is key to the company’s vision.
Including that first touchdown, New Shepard has achieved 15 successful flights and 14 landings with three boosters, one of which has flown seven times. Those flights brought dozens of science and educational payloads to the edge of space, including investigations of microgravity’s effects on gene expression, cells, and tissues. Blue Origin has also launched art-related payloads, including two projects produced in partnership with the band OK Go.
Like today’s flight, the boosters from these past flights stuck their landings, and the crew capsules parachuted back to Earth, touching down on land like Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft have done since the 1960s. As Blue Origin works toward launching orbital flights, the company is following a trajectory that was established by NASA at the dawn of the human space age—first head to suborbital space, then rocket into orbit, then attempt more ambitious missions, like building space stations or flying to the moon.
“It’s a bit back to the future,” says Jennifer Levasseur, a space historian at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, which just received a $200 million donation from Bezos. “We’ve been down this path before in terms of scaling up the capability of rockets. This is not new territory.”
The BE-4 engine is also key to Blue Origin’s eagerly anticipated New Glenn rocket, a planned 321-foot, two-stage vehicle that is being built in a factory that Blue Origin constructed outside of Florida’s Cape Canaveral in 2016. After repeated delays, the first New Glenn flight is reportedly slated for 2022.
Both New Shepard and New Glenn are named after NASA astronauts who achieved significant firsts in the Mercury program—Alan Shepard, the first U.S. astronaut to make a journey to suborbital space, and John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.
“Bezos is pretty clearly enmeshed in the history component of what he’s doing,” Levasseur says. “He spent millions of dollars to support the effort to retrieve parts of the Apollo launch vehicle from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. I saw some of those pieces in the museum just the other day, and reflected on it, and you know, there’s just a long trail of evidence for where we’ve ended up today in terms of what this specific person wanted to achieve.”
Until Wally Funk launched on today’s flight, John Glenn was also the oldest person to visit space, having flown aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1998 at age 77. In the 1960s, Funk outperformed Glenn on many of the exercises she completed while training for spaceflight as part of a private program. Funk and a dozen other women dubbed “the Mercury 13” participated in and passed the same rigorous assessments as NASA’s Mercury 7—but the space agency wasn’t accepting women as astronauts.
“She was denied her chance to go to space so many times because she was a woman in a time where women were discriminated against,” Forcyzk says. “Just seeing her fly in space on this Blue Origin flight will be so inspirational to so many people who have followed the history of the Mercury 13 and who know how much of an injustice that was.”
Building a future in space for everyone
We’re living in an age where wealthy entrepreneurs and government space programs both influence humanity’s off-world future. Musk, Bezos, and Branson each have a vision of what that future looks like. For Musk, it’s on Mars; for Bezos, it’s closer to Earth.
But translating those dreams into reality is proving tricky, and not just because of technology. Right now, the barrier to entry is astronomical, and space remains the realm of the wealthy and elite, Bimm says. Although Blue Origin has yet to announce a price point for its flights, Virgin Galactic has advertised seats at $250,000 each, and the company, which says at least 600 tickets have already been reserved, is expected to raise the price.
“We’ve done a number of studies that are finding that there is a meaningful level of demand, by which I mean at least hundreds of people a year at the price point around $250,000,” says Christensen, whose research looks at the future market for suborbital flights. In fact, there is “potential for much more than that, to go into thousands of people a year, if the price drops significantly.”
There’s little doubt that the first passengers on these flights will be predominantly white and wealthy—as Levasseur points out, rich people have always gone on exotic, expensive voyages, whether to Antarctica, the abyssal seafloor, or the summit of Everest.
Space, however, carries different connotations than destinations on Earth—particularly if future commercial missions shift from joyrides to building a permanent future among the stars.
“Who gets to go to space, and what does that mean, and what does that say about us—the societies that are putting these people in space?” Bimm asks. “Do they really believe that space is for all humankind? What are they basing this utopian idea of spaceflight on, actually?”
Answers to these questions may emerge as commercial suborbital flights continue—but for now, the industry is just getting off the ground. Bimm and other experts say it will be important to keep an eye on the passenger manifests to see how they evolve, and to watch whether some of these early flights include efforts to be more inclusive.
It’s also possible that commercial suborbital flights will not be as enticing as these entrepreneurs hope, and that the enterprise will crumble. But even if that happens, visions of life in space will persist. They always have. And Bimm says it’s key for those with big dreams to recognize that building an existence in space starts here on Earth—that the humans floating through the space stations of the future or watching blue Martian sunsets won’t be able to escape Earth’s issues.
“Space isn’t this transformative place,” Bimm says. “It’s a place where all of our problems on Earth are going to be reproduced or amplified, and we need to see that. We can’t just wear these rose-colored glasses.”