Jeff Bezos, the world's richest man, and three crewmates soared high above the Texas desert aboard his space venture Blue Origin's New Shepard launch vehicle on Tuesday and returned to Earth, a historic suborbital flight that helps to inaugurate a new era of private commercial space tourism.
The spacecraft ignited its BE-3 engines for liftoff from Blue Origin's Launch Site One facility about 20 miles (32 km) outside the rural town of Van Horn. There were generally clear skies with a few patchy clouds on a cool morning for the launch.
The 57-year-old American billionaire flew on a voyage lasting about 10 minutes and 20 seconds to the edge of space, nine days after Briton Richard Branson was aboard his competing space tourism company Virgin Galactic's successful inaugural suborbital flight from New Mexico.
The mission was part of a fiercely competitive battle between Bezos' Blue Origin and fellow billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic to tap a potentially lucrative space tourism market the Swiss bank UBS estimates will be worth $3 billion annually in a decade.
Bezos, wearing a blue flight suit and cowboy hat, and the other passengers climbed into an SUV vehicle for a short drive to the launch pad before walking up a tower and getting aboard the gleaming white spacecraft, with a blue feather design on its side. Each passenger rang a shiny bell before boarding the craft's capsule.
"They are in for the flight of a lifetime," launch presenter Ariane Cornell of Blue Origin said on a live webcast.
Branson got to space first, but Bezos was due to fly higher - 62 miles (100 km) for Blue Origin compared to 53 miles (86 km) for Virgin Galactic - in what experts call the world's first unpiloted space flight with an all-civilian crew. It represents Blue Origin's first crewed flight to space.
Bezos, founder of ecommerce company Amazon.com Inc, and his brother Mark Bezos, a private equity executive, were joined by two others. Pioneering female aviator Wally Funk, 82, and recent high school graduate Oliver Daemen, 18, become the oldest and youngest people to reach space.
The flight coincides with the anniversary of Americans Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin becoming the first humans to walk on the moon, on July 20, 1969. New Shepard is named for Alan Shepard, who in 1961 became the first American in space.
Funk was one of the so-called Mercury 13 group of women who trained to become NASA astronauts in the early 1960s but was passed over because of her gender. Daemen, Blue Origin's first paying customer, is set to study physics and innovation management in the Netherlands. His father, who heads investment management firm Somerset Capital Partners, was on site to watch his son fly to space.
The launch was witnessed by members of the Bezos family and Blue Origin employees, and a few spectators gathered along the highway before dawn. Spectators applauded during the flight.
MINUTES OF WEIGHTLESSNESS
New Shepard is a 60-foot-tall and fully autonomous rocket-and-capsule combo that cannot be piloted from inside the spacecraft. It is completely computer-flown and will have none of Blue Origin's staff astronauts or trained personnel onboard.
In contrast, Virgin Galactic used a space plane with a pair of pilots on board.
New Shepard is set to hurtle at speeds upwards of 3,540 km per hour to an altitude of about 100 km, the so-called Kármán line set by an international aeronautics body as defining the boundary between Earth's atmosphere and space.
During the flight, the crew will unbuckle for a few minutes of weightlessness and gaze back at the Earth's curvature through what Blue Origin calls the largest windows ever used in space travel. Then, the capsule falls back to Earth under parachutes, using a last-minute retro-thrust system that expels a "pillow of air" for a soft landing at 1.6 km/h in the Texas desert.
The reusable booster is due to return to the launch pad using drag brakes and ring and wedge fins for stabilisation.
Tuesday's launch marks another landmark in the "billionaire's race" to establish a space tourism sector that Swiss investment bank UBS estimates will reach $3 billion annually in a decade. Another billionaire tech mogul, Elon Musk, plans to send an all-civilian crew on an even more ambitious flight in September: a several-day orbital mission on his Crew Dragon capsule.
Blue Origin has not offered details on its longer-term pricing strategy or how quickly it will ramp up the frequency of its launches. Chief Executive Bob Smith has said the next flight is likely in September or October. Smith said the "willingness to pay continues to be quite high" for people interested in future flights.
The company appears to have a reservoir of future customers. More than 6,000 people from at least 143 countries entered an auction to become the first paying customer, though the auction winner who made a $28 million bid ultimately dropped out of Tuesday's flight.
Bezos, who founded Blue Origin in 2000, has a net worth of $206 billion according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. He stepped down this month as Amazon CEO but remains its executive chairman.