VAN HORN, Texas – Billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin rocket crew realized dreams and made history Tuesday, blasting off from the West Texas desert, reaching space and returning to Earth in a smooth parachute landing minutes later.
"Happy, happy, happy!" Jeff Bezos said from space. "You have a very happy crew up here!"
The New Shepard provided large windows to enjoy the view, and the crew was treated to three or four minutes of weightlessness. The booster rocket touched down smoothly, a vertical landing about seven minutes after liftoff. The capsule containing the astronauts landed with parachutes and a "cushion of air" created by retrorockets a little more than 10 minutes after liftoff.
"Best day ever," Jeff Bezos said after touchdown, greeted by a sea of cheering Blue Origin employees and others at the company's campus.
Also on board were his brother Mark, longtime women-in-space advocate Mary Wallace "Wally" Funk, and Oliver Daemen, the de facto winner of an auction for the capsule’s fourth seat. Funk, 82, is the oldest person ever in space. Daemen, 18, is the youngest. The exultant travelers climbed out of the capsule to hugs from family and friends.
"Congratulations to all of Team Blue past and present on reaching this historic moment in spaceflight history," Blue Origin tweeted. "This first astronaut crew wrote themselves into the history books of space, opening the door through which many after will pass."
Tuesday's flight marked the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Bezos launched a much quicker trip to space in what the world's richest man hopes will be a lucrative business. Blue Origin employs thousands across several states and campuses. Competitor Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has more than 800 employees. A ticket to space can cost $200,000 or more.
Bezos said Blue Origin plans two more flights this year, and sales of private seats on his flights are approaching $100 million.
Branson and his crew hurtled historically to the edge of space last week. Bezos and his team said they breached it.
It's the 16th flight for New Shepard but the first to include people. Bezos and Blue Origin have been somewhat dismissive of Branson's flight nine days ago, saying Virgin Galactic's top altitude of 53.5 miles came up short of reaching true space.
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NASA, the Air Force, the Federal Aviation Administration and some astrophysicists consider the boundary between the atmosphere and space to begin 50 miles up. Thus passengers on Virgin Galactic tourist trips, which can reach a maximum altitude of about 55 miles, will earn astronaut wings.
New Shepard flew about 66 miles up. That's past the so-called Karman line, 62 miles above Earth, recognized by most international aviation and aerospace federations as the threshold of space.
"Only 4% of the world recognizes a lower limit of 80 km or 50 miles as the beginning of space," Blue Origin tweeted before Branson's flight. "New Shepard flies above both boundaries. One of the many benefits of flying with Blue Origin."
Despite the competition, Blue Origin and Bezos posted a congratulatory message on social media after Branson landed. Tuesday, Branson followed suit.
"Well done Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos, Mark, Wally, and Oliver. Impressive!," Branson said via Twitter after touchdown. "Very best to all the crew from me and all the team at Virgin Galactic."
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Bezos, who stepped down as CEO of Amazon, didn't forget how the trip was bankrolled. He thanked “every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer. Because you guys paid for all this."
Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., noted on Twitter that Bezos rode his rocket ship for "a little over 10 minutes. Amazon warehouse workers on 'megacycle' shifts will be on their feet for 10 hours. I’m fighting for an economy that values the dignity of their work, not the multiplication of his wealth."
New Shepard, a fully automated, 60-foot rocket and capsule, is designed primarily for space tourism thanks to automated flight systems, large windows and a modern interior. After liftoff, the booster returns to the facility for a vertical landing while the capsule briefly floats in space, then touches down near the launch site with the help of parachutes.
Branson, 71, and a crew of two pilots and three mission specialists were carried to an altitude of more than 8 miles by the aircraft VMS Eve, named after Branson's mother. Live video showed the space plane VSS Unity release from between the mother ship's twin fuselages, using rocket power to fly to the somewhat disputed boundary of space.
Like Branson, Bezos, 57, provides his New Shepard vehicle the ultimate endorsement after becoming the first to fly in it.
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For Bezos, whose wealth has been estimated at $177 billion, the short trip was the culmination of a 20-year journey with his company, Blue Origin.
"My expectations were high, and they were dramatically exceeded," Bezos said.
Mark Bezos, 53, is an entrepreneur and volunteer firefighter at the Scarsdale Fire Department in Scarsdale, New York. Jeff Bezos said he considers his brother his oldest, closest friend and the "funniest" person to reach space.
Daemen, a physics student from the Netherlands, was runner-up in an auction for the seat. The first-place winner, who bid a whopping $28 million, opted to remain anonymous and fly a future New Shepard mission instead. Daemen's father, Joes, is the founder of Dutch hedge fund Somerset Capital Partners.
Funk was part of the "Mercury 13," a group of women who went through privately funded, unofficial astronaut training in the 1960s but were not selected to fly NASA missions. Funk said after Bezos selected her for the flight that she had not believed she would ever make it into space. Finally, she is officially an astronaut.
"We had a great time; it was wonderful," she said after the flight. "I want to go again – fast!"
Bacon reported from Arlington, Virginia.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin rocket touch down after historic spaceflight