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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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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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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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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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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.”

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Dutch teen set to become world’s youngest spaceflier

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture says the beneficiary of the $28 million auction for a spot on its New Shepard suborbital spaceship is Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old student from the Netherlands.

Daemen is due to take a trip to the edge of space next Tuesday, sitting alongside Bezos and his brother Mark — as well as female aviation pioneer Wally Funk, who at the age of 82 would become the oldest person to go to space. Daemen would become the youngest.

The actual winner of last month’s auction is still anonymous. Blue Origin said the winner had to forgo the milestone flight due to scheduling conflicts, and will instead go on a future flight. (Although there may be more to it than that: Couldn’t someone reschedule things to make history in the company of the world’s richest person?)

A spokesperson for Blue Origin told GeekWire that Daemen was a participant in last month’s auction. After the sale, Blue Origin followed up and arranged for him to go on the second New Shepard flight. His reservation was moved up when the seat on the first flight became available, the spokesperson said.

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Blue Origin spreads the wealth from space ticket sale

There are only so many postcards you can send to space and back, even if you have $28 million to work with.

That’s one reason why the Club for the Future, the educational nonprofit foundation created by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, is giving 19 space-related charities the lion’s share of the proceeds from the $28 million fare that a mystery auction winner is paying to go on a suborbital space trip.

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Federal funding goes to nuclear propulsion systems

Seattle-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies and its partners are among three teams winning $5 million contracts from NASA and the Department of Energy to develop reactor designs for space-based nuclear thermal propulsion systems.

USNC-Tech’s partners include its parent company, Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp., and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture — as well as General Electric Hitachi Nuclear Energy, General Electric Research, Framatome and Materion.

The team will work under the direction of the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory on a concept known as the Power Adjusted Demonstration Mars Engine, or PADME.

Another contract went to Virginia-based BWX Technologies for a reactor design that it will develop in cooperation with Lockheed Martin. General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems of San Diego received the third contract, and will partner with X-energy and Aerojet Rocketdyne.

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How tech titans gave a boost to space tourism

The suborbital spaceships built by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceline may look totally different, but financially speaking, they have something in common: They both have connections to Seattle tech billionaires.

The connection is obvious in the case of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket ship. Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, about six years after he founded Seattle-based Amazon — and he has said he sells off a billion dollars in Amazon stock annually to fund his privately held space company.

Today the Federal Aviation Administration said it has issued its formal approval for New Shepard’s launch on July 20 from Blue Origin’s West Texas spaceport, with Bezos and three crewmates seated on board. It’ll be the first crewed mission for the suborbital craft, which has been put through 15 uncrewed test flights over the course of more than five years.

Bezos’ trip is due to take place just days after Branson took a ride on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, known as VSS Unity. Both trips are meant to blaze a trail for tourists and researchers to get a sample of the space environment, including a few minutes of zero gravity and wide-angle views of the curving Earth beneath the black sky of space.

Blue Origin’s headquarters has been in the Seattle area from the company’s inception. But Virgin Galactic, which is headquartered in New Mexico, has a less obvious connection to the Seattle tech community.

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Billionaire Richard Branson savors his trip to space

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson rode his company’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane into the skies over New Mexico today and did something that no billionaire has done before.

In the company of five crewmates, Branson became the first billionaire to take a rocket-powered ride on his own company’s spaceship, rising above the 50-mile mark that the Federal Aviation Administration considers the boundary of outer space.

Only two other billionaires are in the same class: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who flew to New Mexico to see Branson off and has reportedly reserved a ticket for a Virgin Galactic flight; and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who’s getting ready for a suborbital space ride on the rocket ship built by his Blue Origin space venture.

At its peak, the VSS Unity plane rose to an altitude of 53.5 miles (86.2 kilometers). On the way down, Branson said it was the “experience of a lifetime.”

“I have dreamt of this moment since I was a kid,” he told the crowd at New Mexico’s Spaceport America during a post-landing ceremony. “Honestly, nothing could prepare you for the view from space. The whole thing was just magical.”