Today, 52 years after Neil Armstrong’s historic Moon landing, the world’s richest man risked it all on a 10-minute joy ride to the edge of space. It was the first flight of the Blue Origin space vehicle with a human crew.
Jeff Bezos was joined by his brother Mark Bezos, 82-year-old Wally Funk, and 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, a Dutch student. Daemen is the youngest person to reach space and Funk is the oldest. Funk was a veteran of the Mercury 13 program, otherwise known as the “Women in Space Program,” in February 1961, which was a privately funded, unsuccessful effort intended to qualify women for selection to fly in NASA’s earliest space programs.
At 9:12 Eastern Daylight Time, the Blue Origin and its four space cowboys blasted off from the Texas launch site and accelerated to Mach 3 (three times the speed of sound). At an altitude of about 45 miles, the booster’s main engine shut down and the crew capsule was separated to fly coast upward along an unpowered parabolic arc. trajectory, Bezos and his crewmates enjoyed about three minutes of weightlessness, unstrapping, floating about the cabin and taking in the view.
The crew strapped back in for the descent as gravity pulled the capsule back to Earth. The descent was slowed by three parachutes that deployed at 2,700 ft. (823 m) above the ground. Only six feet off the ground, thrusters slowed the capsule to just one mph for a soft landing.
From takeoff to touchdown, the whole flight took just over 10 minutes and the crew enjoyed about three minutes of weightless at the apogee of the flight. The capsule reached a maximum altitude of 66.5 miles, more than four miles above the 62-mile-high threshold of space recognized by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, a Switzerland-based organization that sanctions aerospace records.
In contrast, Branson’s Virgin Galactic achieves a maximum altitude about 10 miles lower but still above the 50-mile altitude recognized by NASA and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration as the point where wings, rudders and other flight surfaces no longer have any effect.
I’m very jealous. Getting to go to space would be a dream come true. But the experience of these early efforts at privately funded commercial flights is not my preferred cup of tea.
There seems to be a lot of risk for only a few minutes of euphoria and no apparent scientific benefit. No one wore spacesuits on Bezos’ flight and there wasn’t even a pilot, technician or other professionally trained crewmember onboard. Blue Origin passengers are truly just along for the ride. No one onboard is capable of affecting the flight no matter what happens.
At this point, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic flights are merely very expensive joy rides to nowhere. One potential benefit these flights could provide is exposing a broader segment of society to the Overview Effect. This is the cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts while viewing the Earth from space.
The fragility of the planet and the tiny sliver of atmosphere that separates us from space becomes obvious from space and causes some to reevaluate their views on the environment and national conflict. It will be hard to experience the Overview Effect on flights that last only a few minutes and where the passengers are busy doing somersaults and passing Skittles to each other in weightlessness.
Still, these flights are first steps, and I commend Bezos and Branson for starting the process of making spaceflight available to a broader segment of society. When more people have a taste of the Overview Effect maybe countries will find ways to live together peacefully and people will fulfill the awesome responsibility we have to preserve our planet and the wonders of nature for ourselves and future generations.
But the biggest mystery to me is why the Amazon board of directors allowed Bezos to be on the first manned Blue Origin mission.