Breaking down Bezos’ flight: what you need to know

STORY UPDATE: Bezos and three others join the astronaut club, and celebrate after touchdown at 8:22 a.m. West Texas time.

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DETAILS: “Astronaut Bezos” and company reached a maximum altitude of 107 kilometers during their 10-minute flight on July 20, which Bezos declared the “best day ever.”

New Shepard’s 11-minute flight on Tuesday has been 20 years in the making, but the significance of the flight shifted radically about a week ago. Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos must now do more than prove that he trusts New Shepard to deliver him, the richest man in the world, and three passengers safely to suborbital space and home after some moments of weightlessness and ooh-ing and aah-ing at the view. The challenge is to prove that a short ride in the New Shepard capsule can at least match the intriguing hour-long ride aboard Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceplane that garnered 12.5 million views across Virgin’s social media channels within 24 hours of the July 11 flight.

Put simply, the competition has shifted from who can reach suborbital space first to who has the best technology for capturing the space tourism market and opening the space frontier to the masses, if that can be done.

Blue Origin believes it has the edge with New Shepard because passengers will have “a true rocket ride,” the company told me in a statement, and fly 20 kilometers higher than Unity.

Here’s how to watch Tuesday’s flight and what you need to know:

WHERE TO TUNE IN: The Blue Origin website, which will begin livestreaming at 6:30 a.m. Texas time (7:30 a.m. Eastern). As for television, MSNBC plans to be on site and cover the event as it did for Virgin Galactic’s flight with founder Richard Branson; other networks have yet to confirm their coverage plans to us.

WHAT YOU’LL SEE: The New Shepard rocket and capsule blasting off from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in Texas at 8 a.m. local time (9 a.m. Eastern). Founder Jeff Bezos will ride with his brother Mark, 82-year-old aerospace pioneer Wally Funk and 18-year-old college student Oliver Daemen, who paid an undisclosed amount for the seat after the anonymous auction winner opted to fly on a future New Shepard ride “due to scheduling conflicts,” Blue says. The company has selected employees to provide commentary during the livestream and says viewers should expect “notable features on the astronauts” and discussion of the significance of the flight.


  • The New Shepard design has been launched 15 times, and this will be the first time with an “astronaut crew,” as Blue Origin refers to Bezos and his fellow passengers. The rocket portion of this particular vehicle, New Shepard 4, has been flown and refurbished twice before.
  • The passengers can push buttons on their seats to talk to Blue Origin mission controllers, who will be ready at Blue’s Texas facilities to override the automated flight software aboard the pilotless capsule if need be.
  • After capsule separation, the New Shepard rocket will reignite a single BE-3 engine to slow its descent, and deploy short landing legs to touch down 3.2 kilometers from the launch pad. About four minutes later, the capsule will land nearby under parachutes.
  • The capsule is called RSS First Step, short for “Reusable Space Ship,” with “First Step” referring to the role that Blue Origin sees tourist flights playing in opening up the space frontier to large numbers of people.
  • The capsule’s six meter-tall windows have a combined surface area of 4.2 square meters, equivalent to about four 60-inch (1.5-meter) big screen TVs. That’s large enough to give each passenger a nearly 360-degree view of Earth against the black of space without needing to maneuver the capsule, according to Blue Origin.
  • Blue Origin chose a capsule design to minimize the refurbishment time between flights and to gain experience applicable to future vehicles, including the in-development New Glenn orbital rocket and Blue Moon lunar lander.
  • The flight was announced on May 5, the 60th anniversary of the 15-minute suborbital flight of Alan Shepard, the namesake of the New Shepard vehicle. Tuesday, July 20, is the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
  • Some of the $28 million paid by the auction winner will be distributed in $1 million grants through Blue’s nonprofit organization Club for the Future, which among other activities creates STEM and space lessons for K-12 students with organizations including the Challenger Center in Washington, D.C. The AIAA Foundation is among the 19 recipients.
  • This will be the first of three planned passenger flights in 2021, followed by “many more in 2022,” Blue says.

AFTER THE FLIGHT: Blue Origin will present a press conference with Bezos and his fellow passengers via its website.

View of Earth from a spacecraft window with an empty seat visible in the foreground, showcasing the planet's curvature and atmosphere from space.
The view from a New Shepard capsule during an April 2021 unoccupied test flight. Credit: Blue Origin

New Shepard