By Jackie Wattles, CNN Business
Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, Blue Origin, sent Good Morning America host Michael Strahan, the daughter of famed astronaut Alan Shepard, and four paying customers on a supersonic joy ride to the edge of space Saturday morning.
The group blasted off aboard Blue Origin’s suborbital space tourism rocket at 9:01 am CT from the company’s launch facilities near the rural town of Van Horn, Texas, where Bezos owns a sprawling ranch, and took a supersonic, 10-minute flight that reached more than 60 miles above the Earth’s surface before parachuting to a landing.
Strahan emerged beaming from the capsule where he was greeted by Bezos.
“I wanna go back,” he said. “The Gs…it’s not a face lift, it’s a face drop. I know what I’m going to look like at 85.”
All about this launch
Strahan and Laura Shepard Churchley, whose father Alan Shepard went on a suborbital flight in 1961 and later walked on the moon, rode alongside investors Dylan Taylor, Evan Dick, and Lane Bess, as well as Bess’ adult child, Cameron Bess — all of whom were paying customers. Blue Origin said that Strahan and Shepard Churchley were “honorary guests,” much like the last celebrity Blue Origin sent to the edge of space, William Shatner, and did not have to pay their way.
This flight marks the first time that Blue Origin filled all six seats on its New Shepard rocket and capsule, which is named for Alan Shepard. On the company’s two previous flights — including the July flight that sent Bezos himself to space — only four of the seats were taken up.
That means the passengers had a bit less wiggle room than prior customers, especially Strahan, who is six feet, five inches tall.
Strahan announced his plans to join the flight during a segment on Good Morning America last month, noting that Blue Origin had him measured for his flight suit and had him test out one of the New Shepard capsule’s seats to ensure he’d fit.
Strahan spent 15 season in the NFL, all of them with the New York Giants, where he won the Super Bowl with them in 2007. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014.
The flight followed a similar profile to Shatner’s flight and Bezos before him, spending less time off the ground than it takes most people to get to work in the morning.
Suborbital flights differ greatly from orbital flights of the type most of us think of when we think of spaceflight. Blue Origin’s New Shepard flights are brief, up-and-down trips, though they travel more than 62 miles above Earth, which some scientists consider to mark the edge of outer space.
Orbital rockets need to drum up enough power to hit at least 17,000 miles per hour, or what’s known as orbital velocity, essentially giving a spacecraft enough energy to continue whipping around the Earth rather than being dragged immediately back down by gravity.
Suborbital flights require far less power and speed. That means less time the rocket is required to burn, lower temperatures scorching the outside of the spacecraft, less force and compression ripping at the spacecraft, and generally fewer opportunities for something to go very wrong.
New Shepard’s suborbital flights hit about about three times the speed of sound — roughly 2,300 miles per hour — and fly directly upward until the rocket expends most of its fuel. The crew capsule then separates from the rocket at the top of the trajectory and briefly continues upward before the capsule almost hovers at the top of its flight path, giving the passengers a few minutes of weightlessness.
The New Shepard capsule then deploys a large plume of parachutes to slow its descent to less than 20 miles per hour before it hits the ground.
The big picture
This flight marked the third of what Blue Origin hopes will be many space tourism launches, carrying wealthy customers to the edge of space. It could be a line of business that helps to fund Blue Origin’s other, more ambitious space projects, which include developing a 300-foot-tall rocket powerful enough to blast satellites into orbit and a lunar lander.
It’s not clear how much money the paying customers on Saturday’s flight shelled out for their seats. Blue Origin has not publicly identified a ticket price, though the company did host an auction earlier this year to sell an extra seat alongside Bezos during his July flight.
The winner of that auction agreed to fork over a whopping $28 million for the seat, but that still-anonymous individual opted not to take the ride just yet. Oliver Daemen, then an 18-year-old whose father was a runner-up in the ticket auction, stepped in instead.
Taylor, who rode alongside Strahan and Shepard on today’s flight, told CNN Business that he also participated in the auction but didn’t win. Blue Origin later reached out to offer him a seat, however. He declined to say how much he ultimately paid for his ticket, noting that Blue Origin asks its passengers to sign non-disclosure agreements that preclude customers from talking about certain aspects of the launch.
But Taylor, the chairman and CEO of space investing firm Voyager, did pledge to donate an equivalent amount of money to charity — including donations to organizations that promote access to space for disabled people and provide fellowships to women and people of color in the aerospace industry.
Taylor wants other wealthy individuals who buy flights to space to do something similar, taking after billionaire Shift4 CEO Jared Isaacman’s decision to make his three-day excursion to space aboard a SpaceX rocket into a charity fundraiser for St. Jude to which Isaacman donated $200 million.
That’s the model Taylor hopes everyone will follow. He said he would encourage his fellow paying customers on Saturday’s Blue Origin flight to do the same.
“My guess is, it’s going to be $300 or $400 million spent on commercial spaceflight in the next few years,” Taylor said. “And the people that can afford these tickets can afford twice the ticket, right? I mean, it’s not like they’re putting their last dollar to buy a space ticket. So that’s kind of why I want to do the call to action.”
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