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GeekWire

Citizen spacefliers splash down, ending charity mission

The first non-governmental flight to orbit ended with a splash — and with the safe return of the Inspiration4 mission’s billionaire commander and his three crewmates.

Shift4 Payment’s 38-year-old founder and CEO, Jared Isaacman, paid what’s thought to be a price of more than $100 million for the three-day flight. The mission began on Sept. 15 with a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch and ended at 7:06 p.m. ET (4:06 p.m. PT) today with the splashdown of SpaceX’s reusable Crew Dragon capsule in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.

Inspiration4’s main goal is to raise $200 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In addition to paying for the flight, Isaacman committed to donating $100 million. Another $60 million was raised by the time the Crew Dragon came back to Earth — and soon after the splashdown, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk pushed the total past $210 million. “Count me in for $50M,” Musk wrote in a tweet.

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GeekWire

‘All-civilian’ crew shares art, music and views from orbit

On the eve of their scheduled return from orbit, four amateur spacefliers brought the world up to date on their activities — an out-of-this-world routine that focused on raising money for charity and gazing out the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule’s cupola window.

Inspiration4 crew member Chris Sembroski, a Lockheed Martin data engineer who hails from Everett, Wash., even strummed a serenade on a custom-made ukulele.

“I can play a little for you,” he said over a space-to-Earth video link. “You can turn your volume down if you wish, but I’ll give it a shot.”

Sembroski’s music sounded just fine; nevertheless, he followed up the performance with a promise. “It’s still before coffee, so it’ll get better as the day goes on,” he said.

The ukulele, like many of the other items that the foursome brought with them for their Sept. 15 launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, will be sold off to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

Supporting St. Jude’s mission to treat childhood cancer is the philanthropic goal behind the Inspiration4 mission, as conceived by Jared Isaacman, Shift4 Payments’ billionaire founder and CEO. Isaacman, an amateur pilot who created his own private fleet of fighter jets, is paying the multimillion-dollar cost of the mission and serves as its commander.

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GeekWire

Citizen spacefliers begin an orbital mission like no other

A tech billionaire and three other non-professional spacefliers blasted off today to begin the first non-governmental, philanthropic mission carrying a crew to orbit.

The founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments, Jared Isaacman, is paying what’s thought to be in excess of $100 million for what’s expected to be a three-day flight in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.

Isaacman organized the Inspiration4 mission with SpaceX’s help as a benefit for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. The 38-year-old billionaire kicked off the $200 million campaign with a commitment to donate $100 million himself.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 8:02 p.m. ET (5:02 p.m. PT). “Punch it, SpaceX!” Isaacman told mission control.

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Fiction Science Club

Science fiction gets real in the billionaire space race

The state of commercial space travel is changing so quickly that even science-fiction authors are struggling to keep up.

That’s what Time magazine’s editor at large, Jeffrey Kluger, found out when he was finishing up his newly published novel, “Holdout,” half of which is set on the International Space Station.

Kluger’s plot depends on the Russians being the only ones capable of bringing an astronaut back from the space station — but that no longer holds true, now that SpaceX is flying crews to and from orbit.

“At the very end of the editing process, SpaceX started to fly … so I had to quickly account for that,” he explains in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and technology with fiction and popular culture.

Kluger filled that plot hole by writing in a quick reference to a couple of fictional companies — CelestiX and Arcadia — and saying they were both grounded, due to a launch-pad accident and a labor strike.

It’s been even harder to keep up in the past few weeks, due to the high-profile suborbital spaceflights that have been taken by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. Each of them flew aboard their own company’s rocket ship: Blue Origin’s New Shepard for Bezos, and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane for Branson.

Kluger told me those billionaire space trips are at the same time less significant and more significant than they might seem at first glance.

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GeekWire

Who’s an astronaut? The FAA weighs in

Hundreds of deep-pocketed tourists are likely to take suborbital space trips as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, as well as the Virgin Galactic venture founded by fellow billionaire Richard Branson, ramp up their commercial operations.

But will they all get astronaut wings?

The answer appears to be no, if you go by the Federal Aviation Administration’s newly issued guidelines for its commercial space astronaut wings program. Those guidelines suggest that astronaut wings can go only to crew members on a licensed spacecraft who contribute to flight safety and rise above the 50-mile altitude mark.

Which leaves a big question: Where exactly will the line be drawn?

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GeekWire

Blue Origin’s space ticket sales approach $100M

VAN HORN, Texas — Blue Origin hasn’t yet revealed how much it’s charging for suborbital space trips, but founder Jeff Bezos said his space venture has already brought in nearly $100 million in private sales.

And those sales were made even before today’s first crewed flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket ship, with Bezos and three crewmates on board.

The first big step in Blue Origin’s sales effort was last month’s auction for an open seat on today’s flight. A yet-to-be-identified bidder won the reservation at a price of $28 million, but Blue Origin said the bidder had to defer that reservation due to a scheduling conflict. That’s how 18-year-old Oliver Daemen wound up flying today. He became the world’s youngest spacefarer in the process.

After the auction, Blue Origin executives contacted some of the bidders who lost out in the auction to offer seats on follow-up flights.

“One thing we found out through the auction process, and what we’ve been doing as private sales — we’re approaching $100 million in private sales already, and the demand is very, very high,” he said during a post-landing briefing at Blue Origin’s West Texas spaceport.

Bezos hinted that Blue Origin would continue with the private-sales approach. “We’re going to keep after that,” he said.

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GeekWire

Jeff Bezos has his ‘best day ever’ in space

VAN HORN, Texas — As of today, Jeff Bezos is not only the richest person on Earth. He’s the richest person to fly to space as well.

The billionaire and three crewmates — including the world’s oldest space traveler and the youngest — took a 10-minute ride on a reusable New Shepard rocket ship that was built by Blue Origin, the company created by Bezos in 2000.

“There’s a very happy group of people in this capsule!” Bezos could be heard saying just after touchdown. “Best day ever!”

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GeekWire

Space shots give a big boost to tiny Texas town

VAN HORN, Texas — When I last visited this West Texas town in 2006, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture was planning to provide suborbital space trips for paying passengers by 2010.

The bad news for Van Horn is that it’s taken a decade longer than expected for Blue Origin’s space boom to come to town. But the good news is that the economic impact is arguably 10 times as great.

Blue Origin’s 15-year-old environmental assessment, which was the subject of the Federal Aviation Administration hearing I attended in 2006, estimated that 20 to 35 full-time employees would be working at the company’s suborbital launch site a half-hour drive north of Van Horn.

Fifteen years later, the actual figure is 275 employees — due not only to Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship, which Bezos and three crewmates are scheduled to ride on Tuesday, but also due to the rocket engine testing program that’s based at Launch Site One.

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GeekWire

Jeff Bezos says he’s not nervous about space trip

VAN HORN, Texas — It’s T-minus 1 day for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ suborbital spaceflight, and he feels fine.

On July 20, the world’s richest individual is due to take a ride on the New Shepard spaceship built by his Blue Origin space venture.

“People keep asking me if I am nervous,” Bezos said today on “CBS This Morning,” during an interview that also included his three crewmates. “I am not really nervous. I am excited. I am curious. I want to know what we are going to learn.”

All four soon-to-be spacefliers seemed in good spirits as the faced the camera in their flight suits.

“We’ve been training,” Bezos said. “This vehicle is ready, this crew is ready, this team is amazing. We just feel really good about it.”

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GeekWire

Blue Origin says spaceflight customers are lining up

Jeff Bezos and his crewmates are still finishing up their training for the first-ever crewed spaceflight conducted by Blue Origin, scheduled for July 20, but Bezos’ space venture already has customers lined up for the New Shepard suborbital spacecraft’s future flights.

“We intend to have two more flights in 2021, for a total of three flights, and many more in the future,” Ariane Cornell, Blue Origin’s director of astronaut sales, said today during a briefing at the company’s suborbital launch site in West Texas. “So we have already built a robust pipeline of customers that are interested.”

A good number of those prospects are coming from the auction that Blue Origin wrapped up last month to sell the open seat on the first flight. The winning bid came in at $28 million, but Blue Origin said that person had to defer the trip due to a scheduling conflict. So, the company turned to Dutch teenager Oliver Daemen, who had put in a lower bid but was taken on for the second flight.

Daemen took the spot, and the auction winner will fly later.

Blue Origin hasn’t revealed how much follow-up fliers have been signed up to pay; the price is apparently being negotiated on a case-by-case basis. But CEO Bob Smith suggested that the first flights won’t be cheap.

“We think we had 7,500 people in the auction from over 150 countries,” he said. “Generally, there’s really high interest. So the question really gets down to what’s the price point. … Our early flights are going for a very good price. You saw the interest during the auction was quite high. We had people well into the twenties [$20 million], all very interested. Some of that was skewed, obviously, by the auction.”