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Blue Origin flies thrill seekers to space, including oldest astronaut
Blue Origin flies thrill seekers to space, including oldest astronaut
By Issam AHMED
Washington (AFP) May 20, 2024

After a nearly two-year hiatus, Blue Origin flew adventurers to space on Sunday, including a former Air Force pilot who was denied the chance to be the United States' first Black astronaut decades ago.

It was the first crewed launch for the enterprise owned and founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos since a rocket mishap in 2022 left rival Virgin Galactic as the sole operator in the fledgling suborbital tourism market.

Six people including the sculptor Ed Dwight, who was on track to become NASA's first astronaut of color in the 1960s before being controversially spurned, launched around 09:36 am local time (1436 GMT) from the Launch Site One base in west Texas, a live feed showed.

Dwight -- at 90 years, 8 months and 10 days -- became the oldest person to ever go to space.

"This is a life-changing experience, everybody needs to do this," he exclaimed after the flight.

"I thought I didn't really need this in my life," he added, reflecting on his omission from the astronaut corps, which was his first experience with failure as a young man.

"But I lied," he added, with a hearty laugh.

"You take everything you imagined, you multiply it roughly by 100 and you are still quite far from reality," crewmate and French entrepreneur Sylvain Chiron told AFP.

"I'm not quite back down to Earth yet."

Mission NS-25 is the seventh human flight for Blue Origin, which sees short jaunts on the New Shepard suborbital vehicle as a stepping stone to greater ambitions, including the development of a full-fledged heavy rocket and lunar lander.

Including Sunday's crew, the company has flown 37 people aboard New Shepard -- a small, fully reusable rocket system named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space.

- Second nonagenarian -

The program encountered a setback when a New Shepard rocket caught fire shortly after launch on September 12, 2022, even though the uncrewed capsule ejected safely.

A federal investigation revealed an overheating engine nozzle was at fault. Blue Origin took corrective steps and carried out a successful uncrewed launch in December 2023, paving the way for Sunday's mission.

After liftoff, the sleek and roomy capsule separated from the booster, which produces zero carbon emissions. The rocket performed a precision vertical landing.

As the spaceship soared beyond the Karman Line, the internationally recognized boundary of space 62 miles (100 kilometers) above sea level, passengers had the chance to marvel at the Earth's curvature and unbuckle their seatbelts to float -- or somersault -- during a few minutes of weightlessness.

The capsule then reentered the atmosphere, deploying its parachutes for a desert landing in a puff of sand. However, one of the three parachutes failed to fully inflate, possibly resulting in a harder landing than expected.

Asked for comment, a Blue Origin spokesperson stressed its system was designed with multiple fail-safes.

"The capsule is designed to safely land with one parachute. The overall mission was a success, and all of our astronauts are excited to be back," the spokesperson said.

In all, the mission lasted around 11 minutes roundtrip.

Bezos himself was on the program's first crewed flight in 2021. A few months later, Star Trek's William Shatner blurred the lines between science fiction and reality when he became the world's oldest astronaut at age 90, decades after he first played a space traveler.

- To space, finally -

Dwight, who was almost two months older than Shatner at the time of his flight, became only the second nonagenarian to venture beyond Earth.

Astronaut John Glenn remains the oldest to orbit the planet, a feat he achieved in 1998 at the age of 77 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Sunday's mission finally gave Dwight the chance he was denied decades ago.

He was an elite test pilot when he was appointed by then-president John F Kennedy to join a highly competitive Air Force program known as a Pathway for the astronaut corps, but was ultimately not picked.

He left the military in 1966, citing the strain of racial politics, before dedicating his life to telling Black history through sculpture. His art, displayed around the country, includes iconic figures like Martin Luther King Jr, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and more.

'Dad's going up in a rocket!' French businessman set for launch
Washington (AFP) May 18, 2024 - He arrived in Texas, tried on his flight suit for the first time, and is now preparing to live out his childhood dream.

On Sunday, French entrepreneur Sylvain Chiron will board a Blue Origin rocket and blast off into space, joining the select group of humans who have ventured beyond Earth's bounds.

"I never thought I'd get to do this," the 52-year-old, who hails from the mountainous southeastern region of Savoy, told AFP in an interview two days before his adventure.

"We're going to be astronauts for 15 minutes, so a bit like pretend astronauts, but astronauts nonetheless!"

Blue Origin's spaceflights are brief hops just beyond the edge of space and back again -- but still allow passengers to admire the curve of the Earth while free floating during a few minutes of weightlessness.

In all, the Jeff Bezos-owned enterprise has flown 31 humans to space on its New Shepard suborbital rocket system.

Sunday's mission, the first with crew after a two-year pause, will see six people soar beyond the Karman Line, the internationally recognized boundary of space, 62 miles (100 kilometers) above sea level.

"This morning, I put on my flight suit for the first time -- my wife found me very handsome as an astronaut," Chiron joked on the phone, as he prepared for a day of training including a flight simulator.

What is he most looking forward to?

"Seeing the Earth from space," he replied. "This feeling of leaving the world of men and seeing the Earth as a whole, from above, without borders, in all its fragility and beauty."

It's an exceedingly rare opportunity. Only 10 French space agency astronauts have ever gone to space. In 2023, French-Italian Ketty Maisonrouge flew to space with Virgin Galactic, a competitor of Blue Origin.

- Expensive, but not crazy expensive -

Prices for these ultra-coveted tickets are a well-guarded company secret.

"Yes, it's expensive" but "not completely crazy either," said Chiron. "There are some who would buy a pretty red car with this money."

This thrill-seeker believes that the check he wrote was only a part of the reason he was selected.

"They received thousands of applications, from people much wealthier than me," he said, and believes it was his lifelong passion for space that set him apart.

And he wants to become "an inspiration for young people" to follow their dreams and never give up -- foremost his two children, aged 14 and 15.

Not to mention, "Dad's going up in a rocket!" has a cool ring to it, he laughed.

- 'Not risk-free' -

Determined in his youth to become an astronaut, Chiron obtained his private pilot's license at 16, then attended a summer program hosted by an American military academy for further flying lessons.

While in Florida, he couldn't pass up the chance to watch launches of the iconic space shuttle.

"It was pretty incredible," he recalls. "Not only were we flying, but we had the shuttle right there" on its launch pad, to admire.

Eventually he shifted his focus toward business studies, at Temple University in Philadelphia, and in Japan.

He also did military service and -- true to his Alpine roots -- was a ski instructor for French Air Force and NATO pilots.

About 25 years ago, he founded Brasserie du Mont-Blanc, now a major French craft brewery. He has since sold the company and is now working on a distillery project.

Aware of the criticism surrounding the emerging private space flight sector, he makes it clear he's not at all a fan of the term "space tourism."

Tourism is "taking a leisurely cruise and sipping a pina colada," said Chiron.

"This is still an adventure which is not completely risk-free."

In fact, he added, these early commercial flights contribute to the broader goal of space development.

"There are a lot of technological advances that have come about thanks to space research," insisted the entrepreneur, recalling how the Apollo program was a catalyst for the modern computing industry.

"The indirect benefits are not necessarily obvious, but they are enormous."

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New Shepard's NS-25 crewed mission set for May 19 liftoff
Los Angeles CA (SPX) May 15, 2024
Blue Origin confirmed the launch of its seventh crewed flight, NS-25, from West Texas's Launch Site One, scheduled for Sunday, May 19. The launch window will open at 8:30 AM CDT / 1330 UTC, with the live webcast beginning 40 minutes prior on BlueOrigin.com. The mission will also feature the NS-25 mission patch, which includes several symbols: - "The Gemini spacecraft represents Ed Dwight's aerospace training era. The hand lifting the crew capsule is a nod to his extensive artwork." - " ... read more

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