Sunday Dec 12, 2021
Launch Site One: Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin company blasted its third private crew into space on Saturday and brought it back safely, this time including the daughter of the first American astronaut.
The stubby white spacecraft with a round tip blasted off into clear blue skies over West Texas for a roughly 11-minute trip to just beyond the internationally recognized boundary of space, 62 miles (100 kilometres) high.
The six-member crew hooted with glee as they unbuckled to enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness, looking out at space through tall windows in the capsule.
"I've never seen anything like that," one unidentified crew member said as Blue Origin live-streamed the flight.
The capsule quickly returned to Earth for a gentle parachute landing in the desert, kicking up a cloud of dust as it touched down.
Bezos and other company officials rushed to greet the crew members as they emerged smiling from the capsule. The booster rocket touched down separately and also safely.
"We had a great flight today," Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said in a statement.
Laura Shepard-Churchley, whose father Alan Shepard became the first American to travel to space in 1961, flew as a guest of Blue Origin.
The company's suborbital rocket is in fact named "New Shepard" in honour of the pioneering astronaut.
Michael Strahan, an American football Hall of Famer turned TV personality, was also a guest, while there were four paying customers: space industry executive and philanthropist Dylan Taylor, investor Evan Dick, Bess Ventures founder Lane Bess, and Cameron Bess.
Lane and Cameron Bess became the first parent-child pair to fly in space. Ticket prices have not been disclosed.
Alan Shepard made US history with a 15-minute suborbital space flight on May 5, 1961, just under a month after the Soviet Union's Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, orbiting the planet.
Shepard, who died in 1998, went on to be the fifth of 12 men to have set foot on the Moon.
"It's kind of fun for me to say an original Shepard will fly on the New Shepard," Shepard-Churchley, who runs a foundation that promotes science and raises funds for college students, said in a video before the flight. "I'm very proud of my father's legacy."
Previous Blue Origin flights took the company's billionaire founder Bezos as well as Star Trek actor William Shatner to space.
Bezos, who made his fortune with Amazon, envisages a future in which humanity disperses throughout the solar system, living and working in giant space colonies with artificial gravity.
This, he says, would leave Earth as a pristine tourism destination much like national parks today.
The year 2021 has been significant for the space tourism sector, with Virgin Galactic also flying its founder Richard Branson to the final frontier, and Elon Musk's SpaceX sending four private citizens on a three-day orbital mission for charity.