Nine days after the billionaire Richard Branson made history by becoming the first person to launch himself into space on his own Virgin Galactic plane, his fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos did the same on a rocket from his company Blue Origin.
The 57-year-old Amazon founder, his brother and two others stepped into the New Shepard rocket in Van Horn, Texas, on Tuesday — the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The flight lasted just over 10 minutes, with the crew experiencing a few minutes of weightlessness before returning safely to Earth.
"Best day ever," Bezos said from the autonomous capsule after it landed.
Bezos was joined by his younger brother, Mark; Mary Wallace "Wally" Funk, an 82-year-old female aviation pioneer; and Oliver Daemen, 18, the son of the chief executive of a private equity investment firm and one of the runners-up in a $28 million charitable auction for the mission’s final seat. (The actual winner, who remains anonymous for now, had a “scheduling conflict” and will go on a later flight.)
The suborbital flight included the youngest (Daemen), oldest (Funk) and richest (Bezos) people ever to reach space.
They climbed to an altitude of 351,210 feet, past the so-called Kármán line (62 miles above Earth) which is recognized by some international aviation and aerospace experts as the threshold of space.
Family members greeted the crew on the ground after they stepped out of the capsule for a champagne toast at about 8:30 a.m. local time.
At a press conference later Tuesday morning, Funk said she felt "great."
"I've been waiting a long time," she said, adding: "I want to go again."
It was the first launch with passengers for Blue Origin, which — like Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk's SpaceX — plans to start flying paying customers in the months ahead.
Bezos, who stepped down as chief executive of Amazon earlier this month, has a net worth of $177 billion — making him the richest person in the world, according to Forbes.
"I want thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer," Bezos said Tuesday. "Because you guys paid for all this."
Musk is the second richest, at $155 billion. Branson, worth a mere $4.8 billion, doesn't even crack the 500 on the Forbes list.
The pursuit of space tourism among billionaires has sparked criticism from those, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who see it as nothing more than a vanity project.
"Space travel is an exciting idea, but right now we need to focus on Earth," Sanders tweeted earlier this month.
Before the flight, Bezos acknowledged that his critics are “largely right.”
“We have to do both,” he said. “We have lots of problems here and now on Earth and we need to work on those and we also need to look to the future."
After his return, Bezos framed it a different way.
"We're going to build a road to space so that our kids and their kids can build a future," he said. "We need to that to solve the problems here on Earth.
"This isn't about escaping Earth," Bezos added. "We have to take care of it. And if you go to space and see how fragile it is, you'll want to take care of it even more."
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