Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ spaceflight enterprise, is set to fly a new crew of clients to the edge of space and back this morning. The crew compartment will be a little more full than usual: six passengers will travel to space aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard tourist rocket, the company’s largest group ever flown up on a single flight.
As a result, this flight is a little different. The launch also comes after the FAA’s examination into the safety of Blue Origin’s rockets ended in a stalemate.
A mix of celebrity guests and paying spaceflight fans are on board. Michael Strahan, a Good Morning America host, and former New York Giants running back will be among those flying, as will Laura Shepard Churchley, the eldest daughter of Alan Shepard, the first American in space.
Because they are both considered guests, they did not have to pay for their seats. Customers including Evan Dick, an investor, Lane Bess, the founder of Bess Ventures, and Bess’ son Cameron Bess are flying with them. The group will be completed by Dylan Taylor, a key investor in the spaceflight business.
IT WILL BE INTERESTING TO SEE HOW A SIX-MAN CREW PERFORMS.
Blue Origin will be flying people to the edge of space for the third time from its test facility in Van Horn, Texas. Blue Origin has ensured that there is a star onboard for each of these excursions. Bezos and famed female aviator Wally Funk were on the company’s first crewed expedition, while William Shatner, best known for his role as Captain James T. Kirk on Star Trek, was on the second flight. Blue Origin, on the other hand, only flew four-person crews on the initial two tourist trips.
Even with such a limited complement of people, videos from inside the crew cabin revealed that the inside became somewhat congested. It’ll be interesting to see how a six-person crew, which is the maximum capacity of the capsule, performs.
The trip takes place shortly after the Federal Aviation Administration said that it had completed an examination into Blue Origin’s safety culture and found no significant concerns.
The FAA began an investigation into Blue Origin in early October after 21 current and former employees wrote an essay alleging a culture of rampant sexual harassment and safety problems with the company’s rockets.
Former Blue Origin head of employee communications Alexandra Abrams wrote an essay arguing that employees are afraid of reprisal if they speak out about safety infractions.
“‘Blue Origin has been lucky that nothing has transpired thus far,’ according to an engineer who has signed on to this essay,” the essay added. “Many of the authors of this essay have stated that they would not fly in a Blue Origin vehicle.”
AFTER INVESTIGATING ALLEGATIONS, THE FAA FOUND “NO SPECIFIC SAFETY ISSUES.”
The FAA said it was “reviewing the facts” after the piece was published. The FAA’s inquiry is now complete, as CNN first reported on Friday and as the FAA confirmed to The Verge.
The FAA found “no specific safety issues” after analyzing complaints made against the company’s human spaceflight program, according to Steven Kulm, a public affairs expert with the agency. “The FAA statement is true,” Linda Mills, Blue Origin’s vice president of communications, stated when contacted for comment.
However, FAA employees stated to Abrams in an email obtained by The Verge that the agency was unable to undertake a complete investigation because no additional engineering or safety experts from Blue Origin stepped forward to discuss issues identified in Abrams’ letter. According to the emails, FAA investigators put the onus on Abrams to get her former coworkers to speak up.
Abrams provided the investigators with critical material, such as email exchanges between Blue Origin personnel expressing worries about capsule recovery procedures and a memo sent by a leaving employee concerning safety concerns. Abrams told The Verge that she also persuaded nearly three people to make written statements, but they eventually declined out of fear of their identities being revealed.
The FAA warned Abrams in an email that people who came forward could face legal retaliation since there are no laws protecting whistleblowers at space enterprises.
Because of the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which was passed in 2015, the commercial space industry now has limited federal regulation in terms of safety. Until 2023, the FAA and other government agencies are prohibited from imposing safety standards on the commercial space industry.
The rule was enacted to allow a young space industry to continue to grow and innovate without being stifled by “burdensome” regulations. That implies the FAA’s sole responsibility when issuing launch licenses is to ensure that a rocket launch would not harm uninvolved individuals or property on the ground.
The agency has no authority to impose regulations on how commercial space businesses should make their vehicles and activities safer. Commercial space tourists fly under the condition of “informed consent,” which means they acknowledge that the voyage is inherently unsafe and risky.
The corporation stood by its culture when the initial essay was published in October. “Discrimination or harassment of any type is not tolerated at Blue Origin.” In a response to The Verge, a Blue Origin representative said, “We provide various options for employees, including a 24/7 anonymous hotline, and will swiftly examine any new reports of wrongdoing.”
Blue Origin uses their New Shepard rocket to transport passengers to the edge of space and back, a reusable spaceship designed to launch upright from Earth and land upright on the ground again. Inside a crew cabin with reclined seats and huge windows, passengers ride on top of the vehicle.
The cabin splits from the top of the rocket and enters space once it reaches a particular altitude, allowing the riders to experience a few moments of weightlessness. The capsule and the rocket both return to Earth; the rocket lands upright, while the capsule uses parachutes to softly land.
When New Shepard travels, it typically reaches a height of around 62 miles, which most people consider to be above the limit of space. The FAA should grant commercial astronaut wings to all of today’s passengers when they return to Earth. People who travel above 50 miles in a commercial spacecraft have traditionally been granted these wings.
The FAA declared this week that this practice will be phased out by the end of the year and that all future commercial tourists and flyers who reach space will be listed on the agency’s website. As a result, their crew may be the last to receive the wings.
Today’s New Shepard launch is scheduled to take off at 9:45 a.m. ET from Blue Origin’s Van Horn launch pad. Blue Origin intends to start live broadcasting 90 minutes before the event.