On July 20 at 9:12 am, New Shepard took off from Blue Origin’s launch site in West Texas. The craft reached an altitude of 107 kilometers before deploying parachutes and descending back to earth, while the booster stage successfully made a powered landing. The flight thus beat Branson's flight in terms of altitude by 23 km. The flight lasted ten minutes.
The four passengers on board were Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, Wally Funk, and Oliver Daemen. Daemen, a Dutch teenager, had bid for the seat on an online auction. While he had won a seat on the second commercial flight, the actual auction winner had a scheduling conflict and will thus join a later flight. At the age of 18, he's the youngest person to have gone to space and Blue Origin’s first commercial passenger.
This flight was noteworthy in multiple different ways. Perhaps as a display of faith in the craft since the passengers were the very first to travel aboard New Shepard. While it's previously flown, it's only been done with inanimate cargo. Blue Origin intends to conduct another two manned and one unmanned flight this year.
Blue Origin's craft is called New Shepard, after Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Unlike its primary competitor, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2, New Shepard is a fairly conventional rocket consisting of a crew capsule and a rocket module called “Propulsion Module.” The craft is designed to fly autonomously, thus not requiring an actual crew or even ground control. It's also fully reusable, which is achieved by letting both stages fire off their rocket engines during the closing seconds of the flight to achieve a safe landing velocity. The craft flew for the first time in 2015.
Apart from Bezos himself, the perhaps most note-worthy passenger on the flight was Wally Funk. Funk is an accomplished aviator, beginning her career as a flight instructor at the age of 20. She has been the chief pilot for five aviation schools. The aviator herself claims to have clocked over 19’000 flight hours. Funk joined the Mercury 13 program in 1961 and began training to be an astronaut, but the program was shut down before her training was finished. Yet, she continued to pursue space travel, applying to NASA multiple times in the 1970s, when they began accepting female astronauts but was turned down due to lacking an engineering degree or prior experience as a test pilot.
This flight had been long-awaited by Funk, who at 82 years old became the oldest person to go to space. Upon her return, the charismatic aviator stated: “We had a great time, it was wonderful. I wanna go again, fast!”. Indeed, Funk paid $200’000 a decade ago to fly with Virgin Galactic, and according to a statement by her agent, Loretta Hall, Funk still intends to make that flight.
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