Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder-turned-private space entrepreneur and philanthropist, was preparing to climb aboard a 60ft rocket in the West Texas desert early Tuesday for a trip to the lower reaches of space.
The rocket, built by his private space company, Blue Origin, was set to propel the world’s richest man and three others to a height of more than 100km.
They were due to experience three or four minutes of weightlessness and views of the Earth through giant portholes the company has dubbed the “largest windows in space”, before their capsule drifts back to the desert floor under three parachutes.
The Amazon founder, who has faced criticism for spending billions on his personal jaunt into space, has dismissed claims that he was turning his back on more serious issues on Earth. “We’ll be building a road to space, to do amazing things that solve problems here on Earth,” he told CNN before Tuesday’s flight.
He has said that development in space will eventually ease the burdens on the planet, claiming: “All polluting industry will move off Earth, and Earth will end up zoned residential.”
The 11-minute excursion marks the launch of Blue Origin’s suborbital space tourism business and the biggest step yet in Bezos’s grand plan to turn humanity into a space-borne civilisation.
The trip follows years of slow progress that has consumed billions of dollars of his personal fortune, and comes two weeks after the 57-year-old stepped aside as chief executive officer of Amazon to free himself for personal enthusiasms.
The ecommerce pioneer was beaten to space by Sir Richard Branson, who rode a Virgin Galactic spaceplane to a height of 86km nine days ago. But while the British entrepreneur has set his sights squarely on space tourism, Bezos has more expansive plans.
Blue Origin is also working on a giant rocket capable of reaching orbit, a family of engines it has offered to other rocket companies, and a lunar lander — things that he claims will benefit from his company’s first foray to the edge of space.
The New Shepard rocket, named after the US astronaut Alan Shepard, was due to launch from a site near Van Horn, a drab strip of shabby motels surrounded by sagebrush and scrubland where locals have been hoping for an economic boost from the new space venture.
In a rare dash of colour and hope marking the optimism that the Amazon founder has promised to bring to the area, a large mural painted on one city corner depicts a smiling Bezos striking a heroic pose in aviator glasses, a blue Earth looming behind him.
The launch marks the first for a paying passenger on a rocket to be entirely developed and operated by a private company. Oliver Daemen, 18, the son of a Dutch hedge fund manager, was given a last-minute place on the flight after the unnamed winner of an auction for the seat cried off due to what the company called a “scheduling conflict”.
Bezos’s brother, Mark, and Wally Funk, 80, once a member of the first female intake at Nasa to undergo astronaut training, will also be on board the Blue Origin flight, its first to carry passengers.