Science

Jeff Bezos to fly into space on Blue Origin rocket's 1st crew flight

Outdoing his fellow billionaires in daredevilry, Jeff Bezos will blast into space next month when his Blue Origin company makes its first flight with a crew.

Amazon CEO's brother, highest bidder at a charity auction also joining voyage

Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos is seen with a New Shepard rocket booster and a crew capsule mockup at the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., in April 2017. Bezos will blast into space next month when Blue Origin makes its first flight with a crew. (Isaiah J. Downing/Reuters)

Outdoing his fellow billionaires in daredevilry, Jeff Bezos will blast into space next month when his Blue Origin company makes its first flight with a crew.

The 57-year-old Amazon founder and richest person in the world by Forbes's estimate will become the first person in the world to ride his own rocket to space.

Bezos announced his intentions Monday and said he will share the adventure with his younger brother and best friend, Mark, an investor and volunteer firefighter. He said that will make the journey more meaningful.

Blue Origin's debut flight with people aboard — after 15 successful test flights of its reusable New Shepard rockets — will take place on July 20, a date selected because it is the 52nd anniversary of the first moon landing by Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

The Bezos brothers will launch from a remote location in West Texas alongside the winner of an online charity auction. There's no word yet on who else might fill the six-person capsule during the 10-minute flight that will take its passengers to an altitude of about 105 kilometres, just beyond the edge of space, and then return to Earth without going into orbit.

The New Shepard rocket lifts off during a test in West Texas on April 14. (Blue Origin via AP)

Bezos said he has dreamed of travelling to space since he was five.

"To see the Earth from space, it changes you, changes your relationship with this planet. It's one Earth," Bezos said in an Instagram post. "I want to go on this flight because it's a thing I've wanted to do all my life. It's an adventure. It's a big deal for me."

Bezos is stepping down as Amazon's CEO on July 5 — just 15 days before liftoff — to spend more time on his space company as well as his newspaper, the Washington Post.

His stake in Amazon stands at $164 billion US, which will make him by far the wealthiest person to fly to space.

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Until now, thrill-seeking billionaires have had to buy capsule seats from the Russian space program or, more recently, Elon Musk's SpaceX, which plans its first private flight in September. These orbital trips, generally lasting several days, with visits to the International Space Station, have cost tens of millions of dollars per person.

The flight by Blue Origin's New Shepard capsule, named for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, will last five minutes less than Shepard's history-marking suborbital ride aboard a Mercury capsule in 1961.

But Blue Origin's capsule is 10 times roomier with a huge window at every seat — the biggest windows ever built for a spacecraft, in fact.

The company, based in Kent, Wash., is working to develop an orbital rocket named after John Glenn, the first American to circle the Earth.

Space tourism

The Bezos flight will officially kick off Blue Origin's space tourism business. The company has yet to start selling tickets to the public or even to announce a ticket price for the short trips, which provide about three minutes of weightlessness.

Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson — a mountain-climbing, hot-air-ballooning daredevil — also plans to ride into space aboard his own rocket later this year after one more test flight over New Mexico. Virgin Galactic completed its third test flight into space with a crew two weeks ago; the company doesn't want Branson climbing aboard until the craft is thoroughly proven.

The 70-year-old Branson on Monday offered congratulations to Bezos, a tame, bookish Wall Streeter by comparison. Branson tweeted that their two companies "are opening up access to space — how extraordinary!"

Like Blue Origin, Branson's company will send paying customers to the lower reaches of space on up-and-down flights, not Earth-orbiting rides.

Musk's SpaceX already has transported 10 astronauts to the space station for NASA and sold several seats on private flights.

Online bidding for seat

Blue Origin's launch and landing site is 193 kilometres southeast of El Paso, Texas, close to the Mexican border. After the capsule separates, the rocket returns to Earth and lands upright, to be used again. The capsule, also reusable, descends under parachutes.

Blue Origin opened online bidding for the first seat on the capsule on May 5, the 60th anniversary of Shepard's flight. It's up to $2.8 million US.

The auction will conclude Saturday, with the winning amount donated to Club for the Future, Blue Origin's education foundation. Nearly 6,000 people from 143 countries have taken part in the auction.

The interior of the Blue Origin crew capsule mockup is seen in April 2017. (Isaiah J. Downing/Reuters)

While Blue Origin's and SpaceX's capsules are fully automated, Virgin Galactic has two pilots in the cockpit for every space flight. A 2014 accident left one pilot dead and the other seriously injured.

In an Instagram video posted by Bezos, Mark Bezos's reaction when his brother invited him on the flight was: "Are you serious? ... Seriously? My God!"

"What a remarkable opportunity not only to have this adventure, but to be able to do it with my best friend," the younger brother said.

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