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Bezo's Blue Origin will be the First Private Company to go into Space without a Pilot

“To see the Earth from space, it changes you, it changes your relationship with this planet, with humanity,” Bezos said in a video last month discussing the flight.

Although competitor Richard Branson beat him to space, millionaire American businessman Jeff Bezos is set to make history next week onboard the world's first unpiloted suborbital trip with an all-civilian crew.

On July 20, Bezos, the former CEO of Inc, will be part of a four-person crew for an 11-minute journey to the edge of space in his firm Blue Origin's New Shepard spaceship, marking yet another milestone in the nascent but potentially profitable space tourism business.

He'll be accompanied by his brother, Private Equity Executive Mark Bezos, Pioneering Octogenarian Woman Pilot Wally Funk, and an as-yet-unidentified individual who paid $28 million for a seat on the spaceship which will launch from a West Texas location.

New Shepard is a 60-foot (18.3-meter) tall completely autonomous rocket-and-capsule combination that cannot be piloted from within the ship. According to three people familiar with the company's intentions, the crew will consist entirely of civilians, with no Blue Origin workers or staff astronauts. 

According to Teal Group space industry expert Marco Caceres, there has never been a completely autonomous suborbital or orbital flight with an all-civilian crew. Branson, a British billionaire businessman, went on board Virgin Galactic's rocket plane for its first suborbital trip from New Mexico on Sunday. The Virgin Galactic flight included two pilots and the company’s chief astronaut instructor and its lead operations engineer.

Like traditional rocket launches, New Shepard takes off from a launchpad while standing. A spaceplane propelled by rockets was dropped from a carrier plane in mid-flight with Virgin Galactic.

New Shepard, like Virgin Galactic's trip, will not reach orbit around Earth, but instead, transport passengers 62 miles (100 kilometers) up before returning by parachute. Virgin Galactic's mission soared 53 miles (86 kilometers) above the Earth's surface.

Elon Musk's space transportation company, SpaceX, is preparing an even more ambitious mission for September, sending an all-civilian crew into orbit on its Crew Dragon capsule for a several-day journey.

Simple Math

Blue Origin’s flight is two decades in the making. Bezos founded the company in 2000. A pilotless craft was a financial strategy adopted by Blue Origin executives years ago.

“It’s simple math,” said one of the people familiar with the company’s thinking.

“If you design a system so that you don’t need a pilot or a co-pilot you can have more paying customers.”

New Shepard can accommodate six people. Employees from Blue Origin and industry insiders have already considered climbing up on the inaugural trip. A Blue Origin representative acknowledged that four seats were chosen to provide a better passenger experience on the inaugural trip.

The decision to bypass Blue Origin's in-house astronauts and technical experts has enraged some company insiders, who saw the first crewed flight as a critical opportunity to gather data and technical feedback for a program in its early stages, as well as to evaluate the experience for future paying customers, according to the sources.

According to the sources, a seasoned astronaut would provide a soothing presence for civilian crew members as New Shepard blasts off at speeds of up to 2,200 miles (3,540 kilometers) per hour. Two days of training will be provided to the crew members. Blue Origin has designated two ground crew members to assist passengers in securing their seats and to offer point-by-point instructions through headsets during the journey.

“It’s kind of like getting on a ride at an amusement park,” Caceres stated. “You just trust that everything has been checked out, is in good working order … and you just sit back and enjoy the ride.”

Some industry sources have expressed concerns that passengers who are overwhelmed by the experience or in a state of euphoria may be startled by routine noises, miss key instructions, pass out, or injure themselves floating around the cabin, all of which could be potentially dangerous scenarios that a trained astronaut could respond to. Funk, 82, was one of 13 women in NASA's 1960s space program who completed the same rigorous testing as the Mercury Seven male astronauts but were denied the opportunity to become astronauts due to their gender.

Developing what Swiss investment bank UBS thinks could be a $3 billion yearly tourist sector a decade from now would require proving the safety of space flight.

“One of the main goals of the New Shepard mission is to demonstrate that going to suborbital space is perfectly safe for the average person,” Caceres stated. “So there is a benefit to having as many average people on these flights as possible.”


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