VAN HORN, Texas — Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, blasted off Tuesday morning in a rocket whose design and testing he directed and paid for, spent a few minutes floating weightless on the edge of space, then safely fell to earth in a capsule buoyed by three parachutes.
During the status check with the control team after the capsule touched down, Bezos could be heard over the transmission declaring, "Best day ever!"
The brief flight, which rose into the sky at 6:12 a.m. Pacific time and lasted just 10 minutes and 10 seconds, is a technical triumph for Bezos's space venture Blue Origin, and in particular for the subset of its 3,700-strong workforce who have worked to develop the New Shepard rocket, about 400 core engineers based in Kent.
From a vantage point 4 miles from the launch pad, liftoff was first apparent in a burst of yellow flame around the base of the rocket followed, as the sound caught up with the light, by the roar of the engines.
As the rocket rose into the stratosphere, passing the speed of sound and eventually reaching a maximum speed of 2,233 miles per hour, the roar increased to a deep rattling, felt in the chest and the eardrums. As the rocket reached higher, a twisting contrail of water vapor formed in its wake.
Then, two minutes after liftoff, what had become a tiny speck was lost to the naked eye and everyone on the ground switched to watching the webcast on nearby screens.
Two minutes and 23 seconds after liftoff the engines cut off and shortly after the capsule separated from the rocket and followed a parabolic arc to an altitude of 351,210 feet — or just over 66 miles up.
The booster came down first in a controlled stable vertical descent. As it fell toward earth at 2,500 mph a loud crack rent the air, a sonic boom that made all on the ground jump, even the Blue Origin staffers who had said it was coming.
After a second, more muffled boom, the booster rocket slowed down and landed gently as designed near the center of the landing pad, 2 miles beyond the launch pad.
Meanwhile, the capsule with its four passengers was free-falling toward earth. After the big parachutes opened, the capsule slowed its descent to 16 mph as it approached the ground.
Bezos was accompanied in the capsule by his younger brother, Mark Bezos; 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, son of a private equity CEO who bought the ticket for an undisclosed price; and 82-year-old Wally Funk, one of the original female astronaut candidates for NASA who qualified for the Mercury missions but never got to go to space.
Throughout the roughly 10-minute voyage, the astronauts' excited whoopings could be heard over the radio channel back to mission control. They cheered, turned flips, and tossed Skittles and ping pong balls to each other during their brief period of weightlessness. Funk, who was rarely seen without a grin Tuesday morning, sounded especially gleeful about finally trekking to the edge of outer space: "Whoo hoo!" she hollered repeatedly.
Members of Blue Origin's global sales team watched on the webcast screen and exclaimed excitedly as Funk waved out her window moments before the capsule touched down in the desert scrubland east of the launch site.
After the capsule was opened by a ground crew, Bezos emerged first, waving and high-fiving. The four new astronauts were then surrounded and hugged by Blue Origin employees, including CEO Bob Smith, and family and friends, including Bezos' girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez.
The day before his flight, Bezos told reporters that he wasn't nervous about flying into the fringes of space. "I'm curious," he told "CBS This Morning" on Monday. "I want to know what we're going to learn."
In the immediate future, the flight marks the realization of a once-fanciful idea: space tourism, now real at least for the very wealthy.
Bezos has touted Tuesday's brief excursion just above the stratosphere as a small step toward a much larger and altruistic goal: A future where, expanding beyond the planet's finite and depleting resources, "millions of people live and work in space."
Advocates for the safety of Amazon warehouse workers, though, have largely painted Bezos' trip to the edge of space as emblematic of rising global inequality — and of Amazon's unequal treatment of warehouse workers, who in America, are mostly people of color.
The Athena Coalition, a group of activists that calls attention to what it says are Amazon's abuses, took the occasion of the Blue Origin launch Tuesday to tweet about the disproportionate affect of pollution from Amazon warehouses on Black, Spanish-speaking and Native American communities in the United States.
Ariane Cornell, Blue Origin's astronaut sales director, said in an interview last week she's been "very busy" selling space ride tickets to "very serious customers from around the world." During the launch broadcast, Cornell repeatedly plugged tickets for upcoming flights
Cornell wouldn't disclose the ticket pricing, which is perhaps negotiated client by client, but rides are expected to cost between $300,000 and $500,000.
Blue Origin plans two more flights with paying customers this year and to increase the frequency of flights after that.
Bezos pitches development of new space technology as essential for the survival of humans.
In a 2019 speech, he pointed to the earth's finite energy resources and said people have to start now building the infrastructure to later explore the solar system so that its resources can be used to sustain the earth and to contain a vastly larger population.
He went on to conjure a very-far-out vision of "millions of people living and working in space," not on any of the solar system's deeply inhospitable other planets but in space colonies inside massive manmade structures that feature artificial gravity.
In a news conference following the launch, Bezos said the experience of being in zero-gravity felt surprisingly "peaceful."
"It was almost like we as humans were evolved to be in that environment," Bezos said. "I know that's impossible."
While Tuesday's flight is an undoubted success for Blue Origin, it still leaves the company and Bezos's space achievements far behind rival Elon Musk and his company SpaceX.
Musk didn't bother with the tamer suborbital phase of spaceflight, when a rocket is sent up and comes straight back down again. Instead he went directly to develop the much larger rockets needed to launch payloads and people into orbit around the earth.
New Shepard is powered aloft by an engine providing 110,000 pounds of thrust. The nine engines on SpaceX's two-stage Falcon 9 rocket generate 1.3 million pounds of thrust at sea level, rising to 1.5 million pounds of thrust as the rocket climbs out of the Earth's atmosphere.
Blue Origin says its rocket launches are less harmful to the environment than those of competitors SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, owned by Richard Branson. Unlike SpaceX, whose rockets are primarily fueled with greenhouse gas kerosene, Blue Origin's rockets are propelled by liquid hydrogen and oxygen and emit largely water vapor. And while Virgin flies its spacecraft into the sky on the belly of a jet fuel-guzzling carrier plane for an aerial launch, Blue Origin's rocket launches from the ground.
The same aerospace researcher whose work Blue Origin cites to defend its climate impact, however, has warned that there isn't enough information to determine whether rockets like those developed by Blue Origin could be harmful to the environment if launched with sufficient regularity.
Blue Origin has a big orbital rocket in development. It's called New Glenn, after John Glenn, the first American in orbit. It has been delayed and is now targeted to launch toward the end of next year.
Asked at the news conference whether he planned to fly to space again, Bezos responded, "Hell yes. How fast can you refuel that thing? Let's go."