Blue Origin launches first six-person New Shepard suborbital flight

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PARIS — Blue Origin launched its third crewed New Shepard suborbital mission Dec. 11, carrying six people on a brief flight to the edge of space.

The vehicle lifted off on the NS-19 mission at 10:01 a.m. Eastern from the company’s Launch Site One in West Texas, after winds delayed the launch two days. The vehicle reached a peak altitude of approximately 107 kilometers before landing just over 10 minutes after liftoff.

“We had a great flight today. This was our sixth flight in what has been a great year for the New Shepard program. We flew 14 astronauts to space, flew a NASA payload flight that tested lunar landing sensors and completed our certification test flights,” Bob Smith, chief executive of New Shepard, said in a statement. The company said it planned “several” New Shepard flights in 2022 carrying payloads and people.

The flight was the first by New Shepard to carry six people, the vehicle’s intended capacity. The first two crewed flights, NS-16 in July and NS-18 in October, carried four each. The six will be eligible for Federal Aviation Administration astronaut wings, the last that will be awarded by the agency after it announced Dec. 10 it will retire the initiative at the end of the year.

Two of the six were guests of Blue Origin. Laura Shepard Churchley is the eldest daughter of Alan Shepard, the first American in space and after whom New Shepard is named. Michael Strahan is a former professional football player and currently a television host. He has been providing updates on his training for the flight for ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

The other four were customers, paying undisclosed sums to fly on the vehicle. Lane Bess is principal and founder of Bess Ventures and Advisory, a family fund investing in technology companies. He previously helped start two cybersecurity companies, Zscaler and Palo Alto Networks. He is the father of Cameron Bess, a content creator, who will also be on the flight. The two are the first parent-child combination to go to space together.

Evan Dick is an investor and engineer who previously worked for D.E. Shaw — the same company as Jeff Bezos before he left to found Amazon.com — and Highbridge Capital Management. Dylan Taylor is chairman and chief executive of Voyager Space, which has acquired several space companies. He founded Space for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that raises money to sponsor flights to space for those who could not afford to go on their own.

Taylor said that he would donate an amount equal to what he paid for the flight to other organizations, an initiative he called “buy one, give one” that he encouraged other private astronauts to adopt. Those organizations include Space for Humanity as well as AstroAccess, an organization addressing disability inclusion in space exploration; Edesia Nutrition, devoted to solving malnutrition; and the Brooke Owens and Patti Grace Smith Fellowships.

“Commercial astronauts are predicted to spend several hundred million dollars in the next five years and if they were to all help support an initiative on Earth, their impact could create significant accessible and diversified space exploration opportunities and advancement for humanity here on Earth,” Taylor wrote in a blog post.

The perception that commercial human spaceflight benefits only the wealthy led one member of Congress to propose a tax on such flights. Immediately after the first crewed New Shepard flight in July, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) announced his intent to introduce the Securing Protections Against Carbon Emissions (SPACE) Tax Act, which would tax commercial human orbital and suborbital flights.

“Space exploration isn’t a tax-free holiday for the wealthy. Just as normal Americans pay taxes when they buy airline tickets, billionaires who fly into space to produce nothing of scientific value should do the same, and then some,” he said in a July 20 release announcing his proposed bill.

At the time, a spokesperson for Blumenauer said he was planning to introduce the bill in the “coming weeks” after consulting with experts about how it should be structured. As of Dec. 11, he had not introduced the bill, and his office did not respond to a request for comment about the bill’s status Dec. 10.