As Blue Origin readies for its inaugural crewed New Shepard launch on 20 July—the 52nd anniversary of the first human landing on the Moon—the four people heading to the edge of space are lined up to establish a few records of their own. Reportedly worth in excess of $200 billion, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos will surpass Sir Richard Branson as the wealthiest human ever to reach space, whilst the presence of his brother Mark aboard New Shepard makes this the first space mission to feature a pair of siblings. And rounding out the crew are 82-year-old “Mercury 13” aviator Wally Funk and 18-year-old student Oliver Daemen, who are set to become the oldest and youngest humans ever launched into space.
The assignment of Daemen comes as something of a surprise: in part due to his youth, but also the fact that he is actually not the $28 million winner of a recent online auction for the first fare-paying New Shepard seat.
“The winner of Blue Origin’s auction, who has asked to remain anonymous at this time, has chosen to fly on a future New Shepard mission, due to scheduling conflicts,” the organization announced Thursday. “This marks the beginning of commercial operations for New Shepard and Oliver represents a new generation of people who will help us build a road to space.”
Flying in space “will fulfil a lifelong dream” for Daeman, who has been fascinated by space exploration, the Moon and rocketry since the age of four. He graduated from high school last year and took a gap year before continuing his studies to obtain a private pilot’s license. He is set to attend the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands this coming September to study physics and innovation management.
Earlier this week, it was revealed that the seat auction had enabled Blue Origin to offer $1 million grants to 19 non-profit charitable organizations through its Club for the Future program “to inspire future generations to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and help invent the future of life in space”.
Those organizations range from women-and-minorities-in-STEM pathfinders AstraFemina to the Brooke Owens Fellowship, from the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (ASF) to the Planetary Society and from the Challenger Center to school-focused experimental learning lab Higher Orbits. Each has been chosen on account of their “commitment to promote the future of living and working in space to inspire the next generation”.
“Our recent auction for the first seat on New Shepard results in a donation of $28 million to our non-profit foundation, Club for the Future,” said Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith. “This donation is enabling Club for the Future to rapidly expand its reach by partnering with 19 organizations to develop and inspire the next generation of space professionals. Our generation will build the road to space and these efforts will ensure the next generation is ready to go even further.”
Launch of what will be the 16th flight of a New Shepard vehicle will occur from Blue Origin’s West Texas site no sooner than 8 a.m. CDT (9 a.m. EDT) Tuesday. The 59-foot-tall (18-meter) New Shepard 1 (NS1) first flew back in April 2015 and passed an altitude of 62.4 miles (100.5 km), thereby exceeding the “Kármán Line” which is generally recognized to be the edge of space. However, a loss of hydraulic pressure during descent meant the NS1 booster was not recovered.
In November 2015, the NS2 booster flew its first mission flawlessly and came home to a smooth landing. In doing so, it marked the first occasion that a suborbital-class booster had returned from space and achieved a vertical landing.
Over the course of a year, NS2 flew four more times, chalking up several significant flight milestones as Blue Origin worked toward its plan for suborbital human spaceflight. The descent profile of the crew capsule was tested under two parachutes (rather than the nominal three) and on NS2’s fifth and final mission in October 2016 New Shepard’s in-flight abort system was successfully trialed.
Following NS2’s retirement, the NS3 vehicle came online and undertook its maiden voyage in December 2017. It went on to fly seven times by October 2020, achieving a peak altitude of 73.8 miles (118.8 km) and demonstrating not only the upgraded Crew Capsule 2.0, but also a heavily instrumented test dummy, nicknamed “Mannequin Skywalker”.
And last January, the currently-in-service NS4 vehicle made its first flight, reaching 65.75 miles (105.82 km) and demonstrating speakers, microphones, a crew alert system and push-to-talk buttons. Its crew capsule also benefited from cushioned wall-linings and sound suppression devices to reduce ambient noise levels and cooling and humidity controls to regulate temperatures, scrub carbon dioxide from the air and circumvent window-fogging.
On both its January launch and its second flight on 14 April, NS4 vehicle saw the New Shepard booster rotate at a couple of degrees per second during ascent, which on human flights will afford passengers spectacular 360-degree views.
Perhaps the nearest analog for what the Bezos brothers, Funk and Daemen will experience next Tuesday morning came during April’s flight, when a group of senior Blue Origin personnel—Vice President of Legal and Compliance Audrey Powers, Chief Financial Officer Susan Knapp, Vice President of Sales Clay Mowry and New Shepard designer Gary Lai—rode the two miles (3.2 km) from “the Barn” where the booster is readied for flight out to Launch Site One.
They climbed the four flights of stairs up the gantry, after which Lai and Powers boarded the crew capsule and completed strap-in activities and communications checks with Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM) Sarah Knights. Assisted by the Tower Operations Team, they disembarked before New Shepard’s launch, but after the successful landing of the crew capsule they participated in unstrapping and egress exercises.
Early Tuesday, the Bezos brothers, Funk and Daemen will be loaded aboard the NS4 crew capsule a little over a half-hour before launch. At T-2 minutes, the gantry will be retracted and at T-16 seconds the booster will transition its guidance system to internal power.
Engine Start will be commanded at T-4 seconds—as New Shepard’s single BE-3 powerplant comes alive with a thrust of 110,000 pounds (50,000 kg)—followed by a rapid climb away from the flatness of the West Texas desert. Launch is targeted for 8 a.m. CDT (9 a.m. EDT) Tuesday.
A minute into the flight, the crew will pass through peak aerodynamic turbulence on New Shepard’s airframe and the BE-3 will shut down 90 seconds later. As the crew capsule separates from the booster, the quartet will unbuckle from their seats and enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness as their upward momentum pushes them to an apogee of roughly 66.4 miles (106 km), equivalent to 350,800 feet above mean sea level. The effects of gravity will then inexorably draw them back to Earth, with a soft, parachute-aided touchdown some ten minutes after launch.
Assuming Tuesday’s flight goes well, the Bezos brothers will become the first siblings ever to travel together into space. Identical twins Mark and Scott Kelly were selected into NASA’s Astronaut Corps back in May 1996, both as Space Shuttle pilots, and both went on to fly four missions apiece.
But despite hopes that they might meet in space together in early 2011—Mark in command of the visiting STS-134 shuttle flight, Scott at the helm of the International Space Station (ISS) on Expedition 26—schedule changes meant this did not ultimately come to pass and they “missed” each other by a couple of months.
Additionally, as previously reported by AmericaSpace, Funk becomes the oldest human ever to venture into space, easily surpassing “Mercury Seven” hero John Glenn, who was 77 when he rode shuttle Discovery in October 1998. By default, the 82-year-old Funk exceeds by a quarter-century the record of the current oldest female spacefarer, Peggy Whitson, who turned 57 aboard the ISS in 2017.
And Daemen, aged just 18, will secure a new record as the youngest human space traveler, eclipsing Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov, who was 25 when he flew the daylong Vostok-2 mission way back in August 1961. The youngest person so far to ride a U.S. spacecraft was Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan Salman Abdul Aziz al-Saud, who served as a payload specialist aboard shuttle Discovery in June 1985.
And the current youngest American ever to launch into space was the nation’s first woman astronaut, Sally Ride, who turned 32 a couple weeks before her June 1983 flight on shuttle Challenger.