Abigail BanerjiJul 20, 2021 18:56:46 IST
Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and Blue Origin, will fly to the edge of space today, 20 July, at 6:30 pm IST. This will be the 16th flight for the New Shepherd rocket, but the first flight with a crew.
The entire trip for the billionaire and his motley crew will last for a total of 11 minutes, and they will experience the effects of zero gravity for a total of three minutes. However, the date has some significance, as it has been chosen to coincide with the 52nd anniversary of Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin taking their first steps on the moon.
The rocket will launch from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One facility some 32km outside Van Horn, a rural town in Texas. The Karman line is the imaginary boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space and is 100 km above sea level. The Blue Origin flight will rise to 106 kilometres above sea level.
#NewShepard is on the pad. The launch team completed vehicle rollout this morning and final preparations are underway. Liftoff is targeted for 8:00 am CDT / 13:00 UTC. Live broadcast begins at T-90 minutes on https://t.co/7Y4TherpLr. #NSFirstHumanFlight pic.twitter.com/oShmtRmA4n
— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) July 20, 2021
This launch comes hot on the heels of another billionaire, Richard Branson, flying to space on his Virgin Galactic spaceplane with a crew of five other senior Galactic employees. Their flight did not touch the Karman Line, as it rose to only 86 km above sea level.
However, if this flight is successful, both billionaires will be able to add ‘astronaut’ to their list of titles. NASA and the US Air Force choose to define an astronaut as a person who has flown higher than 80 km above sea level, which both Branson, and now Bezos, will achieve.
While travelling to space is not a big deal anymore, these flights are a step in the direction of broadening the horizon of space travel. They are also exhibiting that their crafts are able to conduct safe human flights to space, while increasing the scope of commercial space flights as well as opening up the space tourism industry.
Both Bezos and Branson do not believe they are in competition with each other. This comes as a surprise, as Blue Origins had posted a list of differences between the two space flights and definitely hinted at poking fun.
During an interview with the TODAY show on NBC on Monday, Bezos said, “There’s one person who was the first person in space – his name was Yuri Gagarin– and that happened a long time ago.”
“This isn’t a competition, this is about building a road to space so that future generations can do incredible things in space,” he added.
Sir Richard Branson on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert last week said he was not competing to beat Bezos in this billionaire space race. He even advised Bezos saying, “Just absorb the view outside – really take it in. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
New Shepard Rocket
The New Shepard rocket is Blue Origin’s reusable suborbital rocket named after NASA astronaut Alan Shepherd. He was the first American astronaut to go to space and also walk on the moon on one of the Apollo missions. Similar to the Blue Origin mission, he did not orbit the Earth. He flew 186 km high and returned to Earth; his entire trip lasted 15-and-a-half minutes.
The New Shepard rocket is designed to take both people and payloads to the Karman line, and all missions will last 11 minutes.
The rocket has flown 15 test flights and has proved to be safe for transporting human beings.
It is 18 metres tall and has only one stage. It uses liquid hydrogen and a liquid oxygen engine to power the rocket. The only byproduct is water vapour.
The rocket is launched into space at 3,700 kph and then the crew capsule separates from the rest of the rocket at 76 km. The capsule continues to travel upwards and reaches 106 km – the maximum altitude and coasts for some time before it begins its descent. The crew capsule has large windows that allow people inside to really get a 360-degree view of their surroundings. It is also spacious enough to allow everyone to move around and enjoy the outside scenery.
The capsule can carry six astronauts and is a pressurised cabin. According to the website, the vehicle is fully autonomous and there is no need for a pilot.
Seven minutes after launching and then separating from the capsule, the booster lands on the ground, around three km away from the launch pad. The capsule uses three parachutes and a thruster to help it land.
“We learned how to make a vehicle safe enough that we’d be willing to put our own loved ones on it, and send them to space,” said Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith during a press briefing.
Female pilot Mary Wallace ‘Wally’ Funk, who is part of the crew, told NBC that she plans to make the most of the opportunity and is looking forward to floating, turning and rolling in near-zero gravity.
Something that Blue Origin is doing differently is its spacesuits. It has decided to do a complete 180 and skip this significant and iconic astronaut look. Instead, the crew will have bright blue flight suits that will give the four crew members a uniform look without all the extra bells and whistles.
During the NBC interview, Bezos added they would fly in light “flight suits” only.
He said, “With the cabin pressurised, it’s redundant; we don’t need to use spacesuits, and we’re going to be just like this,” as he showed the chest of the flight suit that he was wearing to the camera.
The Virgin Galactic crew wore spacesuits; however, they were non-pressurised as well. Created in partnership with Under Armour, the suits and footwear will be worn by all space tourists that will fly Virgin Galactic. The line was first showcased in 2019 a la catwalk style, but in the air.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk still does spacesuits for his Crew Dragon flights. During SpaceX’s first human spaceflight, the black and white spacesuits were revealed for the first time in 2020. They have been specially designed and are customised for each crew member. The suits are also an important factor for the flight, as they are an extension of the spacecraft.
The all-civilian crew will include Bezos, accompanied by his brother Mark; a female pilot that NASA rejected for its astronaut program, Mary Wallace ‘Wally’ Funk and high school graduate Oliver Daemen.
Funk, at 82 years old, will become the oldest person to go to space, while Daemen at 18, will be the youngest.
Mark is a financier and works at the Bezos Family Foundation. He was also a volunteer firefighter. He founded an advertising agency and is Senior Vice President at a charity organisation named Robin Hood. He is six years younger than Bezos and is most likely a millionaire like his brother, since he was an early investor in Amazon.
Bezos shared the moment when he asked Mark to join him on Blue Origin’s first human spaceflight in a video on Instagram. He said, “The greatest adventure, with my best friend.”
The two brothers are best friends and quite close, making him a logical choice to share this special occasion with.
Sixty years after training to become an astronaut and being rejected by a sexist NASA program, Funk will finally go to space. In a video posted on Bezos’ Instagram, she said, “I like to do things that nobody’s ever done.” She later went on to become a pilot as she has been training since she was nine-years-old.
Funk was part of a privately-funded, innovative flight program named Mercury 13 in the 1960s. All the members of the program were women and she was the youngest of the group. The program made women undergo the same training and tests as future male astronauts in the official NASA program.
Funk said, “They were testing us to our extremes.” And at the end of the program, she was told she “had done the job better and faster than any of the men.”
But the program was cancelled after NASA rejected it.
The first woman went into space in 1983 and in 1999, Funk said in an interview, “It was kind of interesting, the fact that we could have done it, and they just wouldn’t let us. A dog did it. A monkey did it. A man did it. Women can do it, too.”
18-year-old Daemen will be the first paying customer for Blue Origin. He is a recent High School graduate who has taken a break year before he goes to the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands this September. He is expected to study physics and innovation management.
Daemen is replacing the $28 million live auction winner, who had to postpone his trip due to scheduling conflicts. Blue Origin has conducted a live auction to sell one ticket for this flight and the money raised was to go to the Bezos Foundation. The company has not yet revealed the name, age, gender, nationality of the winner. Daemen was the runner up in the live auction.
While they were interested in flying to space, Daemen and his father, Joes Daemen, dropped out of the auction after the bid started to skyrocket. Daemon Sr is the founder of a Dutch investment company named Somerset Capital Partners in the Netherlands, reported The New York Times.
“He was a participant in the auction and had secured a seat on the second flight,” said Sara Blask, a Blue Origin spokesperson, in an email. “We moved him up when this seat on the first flight became available.”
Blue Origin has not officially revealed a lot of information about Daemen, including the price of his ticket.
Flying on the New Shepard rocket will fulfill a lifelong dream for Daemen. According to a statement, Daemen has been fascinated by space, the moon and rockets since he was four.
“This is a dream come true!” Daemen said in a news release from the family. “I hadn’t counted on this at all, until last week that surprising phone call from Blue Origin came. This is so unbelievably cool! The flight to and into space only takes 10 minutes, but I already know that these will be the most special 10 minutes of my life.”