The Federal Aviation Administration approved Blue Origin’s license to launch its billionaire founder Jeff Bezos and three other passengers to the edge of space next Tuesday, clearing the last regulatory hurdle for this month’s second billionaire space entrepreneur flying into space.
Blue Origin is gearing up to launch its first crew of humans on July 20th aboard its suborbital New Shepard rocket, which launches from a remote desert site in Van Horn, Texas. The license from the FAA to fly humans, approved Monday night, is valid until August and came after a meticulous review of New Shepard’s hardware and software.
“New Shepard is go for launch,” Blue Origin said in a statement on Monday just before the license approval was complete. Liftoff is set for 9AM ET next Tuesday, with a live company broadcast starting on YouTube at 7:30AM ET. It’ll mark New Shepard’s 16th launch, with its most recent test in April launching as an uncrewed astronaut rehearsal.
Blue Origin’s space tourism rival, Virgin Galactic, launched its billionaire founder Richard Branson and three other company employees to space on Sunday. Branson was previously set to fly on a later mission but had his flight bumped up in a not-so-subtle move to beat Bezos to space by nine days. (Branson calls it a coincidence.) That decision kicked off weeks of snark and sass from Blue Origin, which tweeted an infographic days before the flight comparing New Shepard to Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo spaceplane.
Virgin Galactic’s FAA license approval to fly Branson came 16 days before its July 11th flight, with Blue Origin’s coming a week before Bezos’ flight. Virgin uses a different method of getting its passengers to space: SpaceShipTwo took off from a New Mexico runway attached to a carrier plane before dropping at 45,000 feet and igniting its rocket engine to blast further toward space, some 53.5 miles above ground (the altitude that NASA and the FAA consider space). Branson and his crew landed safely on the same runway in New Mexico minutes after floating in microgravity.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket is a roughly six-story-tall suborbital launcher that sends a gumdrop-shaped crew capsule roughly 62 miles high, an altitude that many countries consider space. The rocket booster returns for a vertical landing, while the crew capsule, after spending a few minutes in microgravity, floats back to land under parachutes. Bezos, his brother Mark, aviation icon and astronaut candidate Wally Funk, and an undisclosed fourth passenger who paid $28 million during an auction for their seat will be on board New Shepard for the flight on July 20th, the date humans first stepped foot on the Moon in 1969.
The FAA license governs the safety conditions for people and buildings on the ground in proximity of Blue Origin’s launch site, rather than the safety of the passengers on board. Current US law bars the FAA from regulating spaceflight passenger safety, a years-old rule designed to give the nascent commercial space sector flexibility to innovate. So Blue Origin, and any other space company launching humans to space, has its passengers sign “informed consent” forms to ensure they’re aware of the safety risks of launching a rocket to space.