Jeff Bezos blasted off Tuesday on the first flight of his space travel company with people on board, becoming the second billionaire in just over a week to ride his own rocket.
The Amazon founder zoomed toward space with a hand-picked group; his younger brother, an 18-year-old from the Netherlands, and an 82-year-old aviation pioneer from Texas — the youngest and oldest to ever hurtle off the planet.
Named after America’s first astronaut Alan Shepard, the Blue Origin rocket soared from remote West Texas on the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, a date chosen by Bezos for its historical significance. He held fast to it, even as Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson pushed up his own flight from New Mexico in the race for space tourist dollars and beat him by nine days.
Unlike Branson’s piloted rocket plane, Bezos’ capsule was completely automated and required no official staff on board for the anticipated 10-minute, up-and-down flight.
Blue Origin was shooting for an altitude of roughly 66 miles (106 kilometers), more than 10 miles (16 kilometers) higher than Branson’s ride on July 11. The passengers were expected to experience about three to four minutes of weightlessness to float around the spacious capsule and peer out the huge windows.
Bezos, dressed in a blue flight suit and cowboy hat, rode to the launch pad with his fellow passengers. He waved to the cheering crowd gathered along the road and raised a clenched right fist.
Bezos’ dream-come-true trip follows 15 successful test flights to space by New Shepard rockets since 2015, all of them unoccupied. If successful, Blue Origin plans two more passenger flights by year’s end.
The company has yet to open ticket sales to the public and is filling upcoming flights with those who took part in last month’s $28 million charity auction for the fourth capsule seat. The mystery winner bowed out of Tuesday’s launch because of a scheduling conflict. That opened up the slot for Oliver Daemen, a college-bound student from the Netherlands whose father was among the unsuccessful bidders.
Also flying: Bezos’ younger brother, Mark, and Wally Funk, one of 13 female pilots who went through the same testing back in the early 1960s as NASA’s Mercury astronauts, but failed to make the cut because they were women.
Not everyone in the remote, desert town of Van Horn was excited about the drama unfolding 25 miles (40 kilometers) to the north.
“It’s a luxury that’s going to be set aside for the wealthy,” said pizza shop owner Jesus Ramirez. He planned to watch the morning launch from his restaurant’s patio with a cup of coffee.