New Shepard completes fifth crewed suborbital flight

WASHINGTON — Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle performed its fifth crewed suborbital flight June 4, carrying six people including the first Mexican-born woman to go to space and the company’s first repeat customer.

New Shepard lifted off from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in West Texas at 9:26 a.m. Eastern. The crew capsule, with six people on board, landed 10 minutes after liftoff after reaching a peak altitude of about 107 kilometers. The vehicle’s booster made a propulsive landing nearly three minutes earlier.

The six people on board included Blue Origin’s first repeat customer, Evan Dick, who flew on the NS-19 mission in December 2021. Another, Katya Echazarreta, is a former Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer and the first Mexican-born woman to go so space. She was selected for the flight by Space for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that offers flights to space for those who cannot afford them on their own.

Other on the flight include pilot Hamish Harding; Brazilian engineer Victor Correa Hespanha, who is only the second Brazilian to go to space; businessman and adventurer Jaison Robinson; and Victor Vescovo, an explorer who has summited some of the world’s highest mountains and dived to the deepest point in the ocean, Challenger Deep.

The NS-21 mission was originally scheduled for launch May 20. However, two days before the launch the company postponed it because an unspecified backup system on the vehicle “was not meeting our expectations for performance.” Blue Origin did not provide further details about the problem or how it resolved it.

The flight was the fifth time New Shepard carried people, and the second flight of 2022. In February, Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin, said he expected his company this year to “easily double” the 14 people it took to space in 2021 on three New Shepard flights. He declined to say how many New Shepard flights, including both crewed and payload-only ones, the company projected launching this year.

Crypto and spaceflight

One of the crew members, Hespanha, flew thanks to an organization called the Crypto Space Agency (CSA). It sold digital collectibles called non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and picked one of the purchasers at random for a seat on the flight.

One of the founders of the CSA, Joshua Skurla, said in an interview that he and co-founder Sam Hutchison established the organization to tap into interest in both space and “Web3” technologies like cryptocurrencies and the blockchain. “This is a disruptive moment and there were going to be some really interesting ways to find a convergence, or help drive a convergence, between space and Web3,” he said.

That convergence includes participation in human spaceflight. “We were excited about the idea of offering a flight to someone who had not necessarily the means to be able to pay for this flight on their own accord but was absolutely fascinated by space and wanted to participate,” he said.

Skurla said the CSA purchased the seat in advance, then sold the NFTs on a “compressed” schedule for the flight. “Availability for seats is not incredibly high, so you have to work around the rocket schedule,” he said. While the organization is offering up to 5,555 NFTs, he said it sold “less than 300” when it picked Hespanha to go on NS-21, and about 400 as of the flight.

He acknowledged that the sale of the NFTs did not cover the cost of the ticket. The CSA sells the NFTs using the Ethereum, or ETH, currency, with an NFT costing 0.25 ETH, or about $450 at the current value of Ethereum.

Ethereum was significantly more valuable in late April when the CSA started selling NFTs, part of an overall sharp decline in the value of cryptocurrencies. That would appear to impair the CSA’s ability to fund later flights or other projects, but Skurla said he was not concerned. “We’re facing a slightly different market now than when we set the NFTs out for sale,” he said. “It’s a great time for us to be focused on building our core mission.”

While it looks like a high-tech raffle, he said the sales of the NFT and the selection of one person to fly on New Shepard is part of an effort to build a broader community. “We’re providing a platform for everyone to come together around the three tenets of the CSA,” he said, which include human spaceflight as well as support for planetary defense and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).

Skurla said CSA had identified opportunities to support both planetary defense and SETI, but did not disclose them. NASA currently spends $150 million per year on planetary defense activities, while billionaire Yuri Milner pledged $100 million over 10 years for a SETI effort called Breakthrough Listen.

He argued that even if CSA captures only a tiny fraction of the overall crypto market, it could still raise millions of dollars to spend on spaceflight, planetary defense and SETI. “It is realistic to generate those types of numbers, and if we aspire to be a meaningful player in this space, then yes, we do aspire to have that type of resources at our disposal.”

CSA is not the only crypto organization planning to fly on New Shepard. Blue Origin stated in an April 25 tweet that MoonDAO, another organization that is selling NFTs, “has purchased seats on an upcoming New Shepard flight.” Neither Blue Origin nor MoonDAO stated when those flights would take place.

In December, Blue Origin announced that Justin Lin, a Chinese cryptocurrency entrepreneur, had placed the winning bid for a seat on the first crewed New Shepard flight but, being unable to go, instead is buying a dedicated New Shepard flight in the fourth quarter of 2022. Lin said he would select five “space warriors” to accompany him on the flight, but since the announcement he has provided no major updates on the selection process or other plans for the mission.

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