VAN HORN, TEXAS (REUTERS) - Jeff Bezos, the world's richest person, soared some 107km above the Texas desert aboard his company Blue Origin's New Shepard launch vehicle on Tuesday (July 20) and returned safely to Earth, a historic suborbital flight that helps usher in a new era of space tourism.
"Best day ever," Bezos, accompanied by three crewmates including the world's oldest and youngest space travelers, said after his capsule descended with three large parachutes and touched down, kicking up a cloud of dust.
The 57-year-old American billionaire, donning a blue flight suit and cowboy hat, took a trip to the edge of space lasting 10 minutes and 10 seconds. After landing, Bezos and his crewmates exchanged hugs and popped champagne while roughly two dozen family members and company employees cheered.
"Astronaut Bezos in my seat - happy, happy, happy," Bezos told mission control during a safety check after the passengers buckled back in following a few minutes of weightlessness in space.
The fully autonomous 18.3m-tall gleaming white spacecraft, with a feather design on its side, ignited its BE-3 engine for a vertical liftoff from Blue Origin's Launch Site One facility about 30km outside the rural town of Van Horn under mostly clear skies.
Bezos, founder of ecommerce company Amazon.com, and his brother Mark Bezos, a private equity executive, were joined by two others. Pioneering woman aviator Wally Funk and recent high school graduate Oliver Daemen became the oldest and youngest people to reach space.
"I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all of this," Bezos told reporters afterwards.
The flight came nine days after Briton Richard Branson was aboard his competing space tourism venture Virgin Galactic's successful inaugural suborbital flight from New Mexico. The two flights give credibility and inject enthusiasm into the fledgling commercial space tourism industry, which Swiss bank UBS estimates will be worth US$3 billion (S$4 billion) annually in a decade.
Bezos, who founded Blue Origin in 2000, said this first crewed space flight was a step towards developing a fleet of reusable spacecraft.
"We're going to build a road to space so that our kids and their kids can build a future," Bezos added. "We need to do that to solve the problems here on Earth."
Blue Origin plans for two more New Shepard passenger flights this year. Bezos said Blue Origin has not determined its pace of flights after that but is approaching US$100 million in private sales.
"The demand is very, very high," Bezos said, adding: "Big things start small."
Bezos said his company is working "ferociously" towards being able to reuse New Shepard vehicles at least 100 times. The one used on Tuesday, twice previously flown to space, scored a bulls-eye landing on a nearby pad.
Back flips and skittles
New Shepard hurtled at speeds reaching 3,595kmh, exceeding the "Kármán line" - 100km - set by an international aeronautics body to define the boundary between Earth's atmosphere and space.
After the capsule separated from the booster, the crew unbuckled, performing back flips and tossing each other Skittles candy in weightlessness. The capsule then returned to Earth with parachutes, using a retro-thrust system expelling a "pillow of air" for a soft landing.
The launch represented another step in the fierce competition to forge a space tourism sector. In this "billionaire space race," Branson pierced Earth's atmosphere first, reaching an altitude of 86km aboard his rocket-powered, pilot-flown spaceplane. Bezos flew higher in what experts called the world's first unpiloted space flight with an all-civilian crew.
Another billionaire tech mogul, Elon Musk, plans to send an all-civilian crew on a several-day orbital mission on his Crew Dragon capsule in September.
"Well done," Branson wrote on Twitter, congratulating Bezos and his crewmates.
Musk earlier wished Blue Origin's crew "best of luck." The flight came on the 52nd anniversary of Americans Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin becoming the first humans to walk on the moon. New Shepard's namesake Alan Shepard in 1961 became the first American in space.
Funk was one of the so-called Mercury 13 group of women who trained to become Nasa astronauts in the 1960s but was passed over because of her gender.
"I've been waiting a long time," Funk said afterward. "I want to go again - fast."
Daemen, Blue Origin's first paying customer, is set to study physics and innovation management at college in the Netherlands.
His investment executive father embraced him after he emerged from the capsule.
"The most profound piece of it for me was looking out at the Earth and looking at the Earth's atmosphere," Bezos said, noting how the experience underscored the planet's beauty and fragility.