19 May 2024, 09:44

Blue Origin flies thrill seekers to space after two year hiatus

WASHINGTON, May 19, 2024 (BSS/AFP) - Blue Origin is set to fly adventurers
to the final frontier on Sunday for the first time in nearly two years,
reigniting competition in the space tourism market after a rocket mishap put
its crewed operations on hold.

Six people including Black sculptor and former Air Force pilot Ed Dwight, who
was controversially spurned by NASA's astronaut corps in the 1960s, will
blast off at around 8:30 am local time (1330 GMT) from the company's Launch
Site One base in west Texas.

Dwight -- at 90 years, 8 months and 10 days -- is set to become the oldest
person to go to space, narrowly pipping Star Trek actor William Shatner, who
was almost two months younger when he launched with Blue Origin in 2021.

Mission NS-25 is the seventh human flight for the enterprise owned and
founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, who sees short jaunts on the New
Shepard suborbital vehicle as a stepping stone to greater ambitions,
including the development of a full-fledged heavy rocket and lunar lander.

French entrepreneur Sylvain Chiron, one of the crew, told AFP he was most
excited about "this sensation of leaving the world of men and seeing the
Earth as a whole, from above, without borders, with all its fragility and

To date, Blue Origin has flown 31 people aboard New Shepard -- a small, fully
reusable rocket system named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space.

- Second nonagenarian -

The program encountered a setback when a New Shepard rocket caught fire
shortly after launch on September 12, 2022. The uncrewed capsule ejected in
time, meaning astronauts would have been safe had they flown.

A federal investigation revealed an overheating engine nozzle was at fault.
Blue Origin took corrective steps and carried out a successful uncrewed
launch in December 2023, paving the way for Sunday's mission.

After lift-off, the sleek and roomy capsule separates from the booster, which
produces zero carbon emissions as its fuel -- liquid hydrogen and liquid
oxygen -- combust to produce water vapor. The rocket performs a precision
vertical landing.

As the spaceship soars beyond the Karman Line, the internationally recognized
boundary of space 62 miles (100 kilometers) above sea level, passengers can
marvel at the Earth's curvature and unbuckle their seats to float -- or even
perform jumping jacks -- during a few minutes of weightlessness.

The capsule then reenters the atmosphere, deploying its parachutes for a
gentle desert landing in a puff of sand.

Bezos himself was on the program's first ever crewed flight in 2021. A few
months later, Shatner blurred the lines between science fiction and reality
when he became the world's oldest ever astronaut, decades after he first
played a space traveler.

Dwight will become only the second nonagenarian to venture beyond Earth.

Ticket prices are a well-guarded secret, but guests like Dwight -- whose seat
was sponsored by the nonprofit Space for Humanity -- ride for free.

- To space, finally -

Blue Origin's competitor in suborbital space is Virgin Galactic, which
deploys a supersonic spaceplane that is dropped from beneath the wings of a
massive carrier plane at high altitude.

Virgin Galactic experienced its own two-year safety pause because of an
anomaly linked with the 2021 flight that carried its founder British tycoon
Richard Branson into space. But the company later hit its stride with half a
dozen successful flights in quick succession.

Its next mission is set for June, after which it will head into another pause
to build out a new class of advanced spaceplane.

Sunday's mission finally gives Dwight the chance he was denied decades ago.

He was an elite test pilot when he was appointed by president John F Kennedy
to join a highly competitive Air Force program known as a pathway for the
astronaut corps, but was ultimately not picked.

He left the military in 1966, citing the strain of racial politics, before
dedicating his life to telling Black history through sculpture. His art,
displayed around the country, includes iconic figures like Martin Luther King
Jr, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and more.

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