WASHINGTON: Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin flew adventurers to the final frontier on Sunday for the first time in nearly two years, reigniting competition in the space tourism market after a rocket mishap put its crewed operations on hold.

Six people, including Black sculptor and former Air Force pilot Ed Dwight who was controversially spurned by Nasa’s astronaut corps in the 1960s, launched around 10:36am local time on Sunday from the launch site in west Texas, a live feed showed.

Dwight — at 90 years, 8 months and 10 days — became the oldest person to go to space, narrowly pipping Star Trek actor William Shatner, who was almost two months younger when he launched with Blue Origin in 2021.

Mission NS-25 is the seventh human flight for the enterprise owned and founded by Amazon billionaire, Jeff Bezos, who sees short jaunts on the New Shepard suborbital vehicle as a stepping stone to greater ambitions.

Nonagenarian among travellers on board

“I was the first guy in the world to be famous for not doing something,” Dwight joked ahead of launch. “Needless to say, I’m overwhelmed.”

To date, Blue Origin has flown 31 people aboard New Shepard — a small, fully reusable rocket system named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space.

Earlier on Sept 12, 2022, the programme encountered a setback when a New Shepard rocket caught fire shortly after launch. The uncrewed capsule ejected in time, meaning astronauts would have been safe had they flown.

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. The rocket performed a precision vertical landing. As the spaceship soared beyond the Karman Line, the internationally recognised boundary of space 100km above sea level, passengers marveled at the Earth’s curvature and had the chance to unbuckle their seats to float 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 deploy, resulting in a harder landing than expected.

Bezos himself was on the programme’s first-ever crewed flight in 2021. A few months later, Shatner became the world’s oldest-ever astronaut. Dwight became only the second nonagenarian to venture beyond Earth.

Ticket prices are a well-guarded secret, but guests like Dwight ride for free.

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2024

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