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Amazon's Jeff Bezos makes history with all-civilian suborbital flight

The Amazon founder flew to the edge of space with three others aboard a rocket and capsule developed by his private spaceflight company, Blue Origin. 
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Jeff Bezos, the 57-year-old founder of Amazon, has a new title to add to his résumé: astronaut.

Bezos successfully flew to the edge of space Tuesday aboard a rocket and capsule developed by his private spaceflight company, Blue Origin. The billionaire entrepreneur made history by being part of the first unpiloted suborbital flight with an all-civilian crew. The much-anticipated trip was also the first crewed launch for Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket.

Bezos launched at around 9:11 a.m. ET from a site in the west Texas desert southeast of El Paso. After liftoff, the New Shepard rocket accelerated toward space at three times the speed of sound. At an altitude of 250,000 feet, the capsule separated, taking Bezos and his crew to the edge of space. The craft then descended under parachutes and landed again in the Texas desert. The entire flight lasted roughly 10 minutes.

"Best day ever," Bezos radioed to mission controllers after touching down.

Bezos’ flight was a suborbital jaunt, which means he and his crew members didn’t actually enter into orbit around Earth. Rather, the capsule reached the edge of space, at an altitude of more than 65 miles, where the passengers experienced roughly four minutes of weightlessness.

Bezos’ launch was just nine days after another billionaire, British entrepreneur Richard Branson, flew to the edge of space on a rocket-powered vehicle designed by his own space tourism company, Virgin Galactic. Both flights — combined with the competition between the rival billionaires — have captured global attention and garnered interest and enthusiasm for the nascent space tourism industry.

Joining Bezos on the flight were his brother, Mark, and Wally Funk, 82, a former test pilot who was one of the Mercury 13 women who underwent training in the 1960s to demonstrate that women could qualify for NASA’s astronaut corps. Funk is now the oldest person to reach space.

Rounding out the four-person crew was Oliver Daemen, 18, of the Netherlands, who now holds the title of the youngest astronaut.

In a post-launch press conference, Bezos described the thrill of launching to the edge of space.

"My expectations were high and they were dramatically exceeded," he said.

He also spoke about gazing back at the planet and how that experience reinforced his commitment to solving climate change.

"It's actually incredibly thin," Bezos said about Earth's atmosphere. "It's one thing to recognize that intellectually. It's another thing to see with your own eyes how fragile it is."

Although Bezos’ suborbital experience was similar to that of Branson, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic operate with different flight profiles. Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered Unity craft launches from a carrier airplane from an altitude of 50,000 feet and is flown by two onboard pilots. Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket and capsule launch vertically and are designed to fly autonomously. Both the rocket and capsule are also designed to be reusable.

Blue Origin’s capsule is also designed to reach a higher altitude than Virgin Galactic’s vehicle. The edge of space is often defined by the so-called Kármán line, at 62 miles. The New Shepard capsule flies above the Kármán line, while Virgin Galactic’s craft reached an altitude of around 53 miles during Branson’s flight, which fueled a budding rivalry between the companies.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Air Force recognize the boundary of space at 50 miles, which means Bezos, Branson and their fellow passengers are all be eligible to get their commercial astronaut wings.

Bezos’ flight was a critical milestone for Blue Origin and the commercial spaceflight industry, which until now has been dominated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Both Branson’s and Bezos’ flights could open up a potentially lucrative new market for high-priced trips to the edge of space.

Blue Origin hasn’t yet announced the cost of tickets on suborbital joyrides, but they are expected to cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars. Bezos said the company is planning two more crewed launches this year, and eventually hopes to fly with more regularity. He added that interest skyrocketed after Blue Origin announced earlier this year that it would auction off a seat on a future flight.

"We're approaching $100 million in private sales already," Bezos said during the news briefing. "The demand is very high."

Still, it will probably take some time to build up the space tourism industry, said Marco Caceres, a space industry analyst with Teal Group Corp., an aerospace and defense market analysis firm.

“The flights with these billionaires is good for exposure and attracts attention, but what’s going to add confidence is regularity,” he said. “It’ll be important for these companies to show that they can do lots of flights with no significant problems and no major accidents.”

In addition to suborbital trips offered by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, SpaceX is planning orbital tourism flights beginning later this year with the first mission to space with an all-civilian crew.

While the cost of suborbital and orbital trips will be out of reach for most people, Bezos has spoken about the importance of opening up access to space, particularly for young scientists and explorers.

“This is about building a road to space so that future generations can do incredible things in space,” he said Monday on the “TODAY” show.

Bezos, Branson and Musk have all faced backlash for what some consider to be ego-driven or frivolous ventures. But for Jim Cantrell, CEO of Phantom Space, an Arizona-based startup that aims to build and launch commercial satellites, the criticisms don’t take into account the potential long-term benefits of investing in space technologies.

“These guys are doing something that they think is fundamental to the future of humanity, and this is just an initial step,” said Cantrell, a former executive at SpaceX.

“It’s entrepreneurs who have helped solve a lot of the problems on Earth,” he said. “People ought to welcome this spirit of exploration, because it’s the same kind of mentalities that found cures for diseases and gave us better medicines.”