Picture: MARK WILSON/GETTY IMAGES
Picture: MARK WILSON/GETTY IMAGES

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and three others landed safely after Blue Origin’s first flight into space with passengers aboard, a milestone in the company’s effort to make space tourism viable.

The company’s capsule touched down in West Texas at about 8.22am local time on Tuesday, roughly 10 minutes after it launched on Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket. The crew experienced a few moments of weightlessness as the spaceship soared past the Karman line at an altitude of about 100km above the Earth. The capsule then parachuted back.

“Best day ever,” Bezos said on a live stream of the suborbital flight, shortly before the capsule landed.

He then left the capsule, wearing a cowboy hat, with his fellow passengers — his brother, Mark; Wally Funk, 82, a former astronaut trainee; and Oliver Daemen, the 18-year-old son of a Dutch financier. Funk was the oldest person to travel to space and Daemen the youngest.

The mission caps a landmark month for space-tourism ventures, following a trip to the heavens nine days earlier by UK billionaire Richard Branson on a special plane made by Virgin Galactic Holdings, a rival to Blue Origin. Both companies are set to expand operations with plans to entice super-wealthy customers to pay big money for a unique travel experience.

“Impressive!” Branson said in a tweet after the Blue Origin trip. “Very best to all the crew from me and all the team at @virgingalactic.”

Blue Origin built suspense around the flight with a well-publicised auction. An anonymous bidder offered $28m to fly with Bezos, but what Blue Origin described as a timing conflict left an opening for Daemen.

On July 11, Branson demonstrated his rival company’s capabilities by boarding a Virgin Galactic vessel and flying to a lower altitude of 86km, where passengers also experienced weightlessness. Highly publicised excursions by their billionaire founders are likely to serve as a vote of confidence in the safety of the joyrides that the companies want to sell to wealthy tourists.

Bezos, 57, said he’s planned on travelling to space since he was five years old. He started Amazon as an online book business from his Seattle garage in 1994 and turned it into the world’s largest online retailer, making him the wealthiest man on the planet with a net worth exceeding $200bn, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

He’s been selling Amazon stock to fund Blue Origin, which is based in Kent, Washington, now has 3,500 employees and also builds rocket engines used to launch satellites. Bezos stepped down as Amazon CEO earlier this month to become executive chair of the e-commerce giant.

Branson’s flight earlier this month stole some thunder from Bezos’s launch and prompted jousting on social media. Blue Origin dissed the Virgin Galactic flight in a July 9 tweet, calling it a “high-altitude aircraft” with puny windows. Blue Origin says it has the biggest windows in space. On Monday, Virgin Galactic on Twitter wished the Blue Origin team a “successful and safe flight”.

Despite the fight for space tourism buzz, the ultimate goal is to make such trips routine on rockets that are reused like aircraft. The New Shepard booster returned to a landing pad so it can be reused rather than breaking apart in the atmosphere.

Reusable rockets are key to lowering the cost of space travel, which could make it more accessible. Blue Origin hasn’t disclosed the expected price of future space trips or the amount paid by the teenager.

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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