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Bezos’ Blue Origin launches first crew to edge of space since 2022

BLUE ORIGIN/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS / MAY 19
                                Jeff Bezos-backed Blue Origin resumes its flights to the edge of space, carrying six people seated in a capsule atop the New Shepard rocket, ending a near two-year pause of crewed operations following a 2022 mission failure in Van Horn, Texas in a still image from video.
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BLUE ORIGIN/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS / MAY 19

Jeff Bezos-backed Blue Origin resumes its flights to the edge of space, carrying six people seated in a capsule atop the New Shepard rocket, ending a near two-year pause of crewed operations following a 2022 mission failure in Van Horn, Texas in a still image from video.

Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin launched a six-person crew — including the first U.S. Black astronaut candidate from the 1960s — from West Texas to the edge of space on Sunday, resuming its centerpiece space tourism business for the first time since its suborbital New Shepard rocket was grounded in 2022.

“I am ecstatic,” Ed Dwight, who at age 90 years and eight months became the oldest person in space, said upon landing.

Dwight and the other passengers, seated in a gumdrop-shaped capsule atop the rocket, were launched from Blue Origin facilities near the remote desert town of Van Horn. The rocket separated from the capsule, which then ascended further beyond the boundary of Earth’s atmosphere to 65.7 miles (105.7 km), while the booster returned to land as planned.

The capsule then returned to Earth under parachutes, capping a mission lasting roughly 10 minutes. One of the capsule’s three parachutes did not fully inflate, a hitch that may draw scrutiny before the rocket’s next flight.

Dwight was the first Black astronaut candidate who was picked by former U.S. President John Kennedy in 1961 to train as an astronaut, but until now had never flown to space. Dwight stepped out of the capsule once it landed and thrust his fists into the air in celebration.

“I thought I really didn’t need this in my life, but now I need it in my life,” Dwight told a Blue Origin interviewer upon landing.

Blue Origin has now flown 37 private astronauts, including in 2021 “Star Trek” star William Shatner, who was 90 years and six months old at the time.

The passengers, also including a venture capitalist and a pilot, were paying customers of Blue Origin’s space tourism business, though Dwight’s seat was sponsored by a space-focused nonprofit and a private foundation. Blue Origin has not disclosed how much it charges customers.

CORRECTIVE ACTIONS

The grounding of New Shepard, Blue Origin’s only active rocket, came after a mid-flight failure in September 2022 during an uncrewed research mission. A structural failure in the rocket’s engine nozzle, the company concluded, forced the capsule full of science experiments to abort.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees launch site safety and commercial rocket mishaps, examined Blue Origin’s probe into the failure and required the company to take 21 corrective actions, including an engine redesign and “organizational changes.”

New Shepard returned to flight in December 2023 with an uncrewed mission, carrying 33 science and research payloads to the edge of space.

The FAA did not immediately respond to questions about the New Shepard capsule’s parachute and whether the agency would investigate.

Resuming New Shepard’s routine missions was a top priority for Blue Origin’s new CEO Dave Limp, plucked from Amazon.com’s devices unit late last year by Bezos, the billionaire founder of both companies. Bezos is working to boost his space company’s competitive footing with Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

While New Shepard is back to flying people, other pressing priorities remain at the company. Chief among them is debuting Blue Origin’s much larger rocket, New Glenn, a reusable heavy-lift rocket designed to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in the business of launching commercial and government satellites into Earth’s orbit and beyond.

Development of New Glenn and its BE-4 engines has been delayed for years, though Blue Origin expects a debut launch from Florida by the end of this year.

Limp, who started as CEO in December, has sought to speed up the company’s production line for BE-4, which is also used by the Boeing-Lockheed joint venture United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket.

In the suborbital space tourism business, Blue Origin faces competition from Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, whose VSS Unity spaceplane sends passengers to space horizontally much like a traditional aircraft.

Sunday’s New Shepard launch marked Blue Origin’s seventh crewed mission. Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity is due to launch its seventh commercial mission next month before the company pauses its spaceflight program until 2026 to upgrade its fleet.

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