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Bezos, rocket complete historic spaceflight

Billionaire’s firm selling seats on future missions

John Bacon and Emre Kelly

USA TODAY

VAN HORN, Texas – Billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin rocket crew realized dreams and made history Tuesday, blasting off from the West Texas desert, reaching space and returning to Earth with a smooth parachute landing minutes later.

“Happy, happy, happy!” Jeff Bezos said from space. “You have a very happy crew up here!”

The New Shepard provided large windows to enjoy the view, and the crew was also treated to three or four minutes of weightlessness. The booster rocket touched down smoothly, a vertical landing about seven minutes after liftoff. The capsule containing the astronauts landed with parachutes and a “cushion of air” created by retrorockets just over 10 minutes after liftoff.

“Best day ever,” Jeff Bezos said after touchdown, greeted by a sea of cheering Blue Origin employees and others at the company’s campus.

Also on board were his brother Mark, longtime women-in-space advocate Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk, and Oliver Daemen, the de facto winner of an auction for the capsule’s fourth seat. Funk, 82, is now the oldest person ever in space. Daemen, 18, is the youngest. The exultant travelers climbed out of the capsule to hugs from family and friends.

“Congratulations to all of Team Blue past and present on reaching this historic moment in spaceflight history,” Blue Origin tweeted. “This first astronaut crew wrote themselves into the history books of space, opening the door through which many after will pass.”

Tuesday’s flight marked the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Bezos launched not only a much quicker trip to space, but also what the world’s richest man hopes will be a lucrative business. Blue Origin employs thousands across several states and campuses. Competitor Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has more than 800 employees. A ticket to space can cost $200,000 or more.

Bezos said Blue Origin plans two more flights this year alone, and that sales of private seats on his flights are already approaching $100 million.

Branson and his crew hurtled historically to the edge of space last week. Bezos and his team say they breached it.

It’s the 16th flight for New Shepard but the first to include people. Bezos and Blue Origin have been somewhat dismissive of Branson’s flight nine days ago, saying Virgin Galactic’s top altitude of 53.5 miles came up short of reaching true space.

NASA, the Air Force, the Federal Aviation Administration and some astrophysicists consider the boundary between the atmosphere and space to begin 50 miles up. Thus passengers on Virgin Galactic tourist trips, which can reach a maximum altitude of about 55 miles, will earn astronaut wings.

New Shepard flew about 66 miles up. That’s past the so-called Karman line, 62 miles above Earth, recognized by most international aviation and aerospace federations as the threshold of space.

New Shepard, a fully automated, 60-foot rocket and capsule, is designed primarily for space tourism thanks to automated flight systems, large windows and a modern interior. After liftoff, the booster returns to the facility for a vertical landing while the capsule briefly floats in space, then touches down near the launch site with the help of parachutes.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule parachutes safely down to the launch area Tuesday near Van Horn, Texas. TONY GUTIERREZ/AP

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