WASHINGTON — Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle performed its fifth crewed suborbital flight on June 4, carrying six people, including the first Mexican-born woman to fly into space and the company’s first regular customer.
New Shepard took off from Blue Origin, West Texas, at 9:25 am EST. The crew capsule, with six people on board, landed 10 minutes after takeoff, having reached a peak altitude of about 107 kilometers. The vehicle’s booster made a drifting landing nearly three minutes earlier.
Among the six people on board was Evan Dick, Blue Origin’s first regular customer 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 into space. She was selected for the flight by Space for Humanity, a non-profit organization that offers flights to space for those who cannot afford them.
Others on the flight are Pilot Hamish Harding; Brazilian engineer Victor Correa Hespanha, who is only the second Brazilian to go into space; businessman and adventurer Jaison Robinson; and Victor Vescovo, an explorer who has scaled some of the world’s highest mountains and dove to the ocean’s deepest point, Challenger Deep.
The NS-21 mission was originally scheduled to launch on May 20th. However, two days before launch, the company postponed it because an unspecified backup system on the vehicle “did not meet our performance expectations.” Blue Origin did not provide any further details on the issue or how it was resolved.
The flight marked the fifth time New Shepard has carried people and the second flight in 2022. In February, Blue Origin chief executive Bob Smith said he expected his company to carry the 14 people it carried into space this year , will “slightly double” on three New Shepard flights in 2021. He declined to say how many New Shepard flights, including manned and payload-only, the company plans to launch this year.
Crypto and Space
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 randomly selected one of the buyers for an in-flight seat.
One of the founders of the CSA, Joshua Skurla, said in an interview that he and co-founder Sam Hutchison founded the organization to stimulate interest in both space and “Web3” technologies such as cryptocurrencies and blockchain. “This is a disruptive moment and there would be some really interesting ways to find or drive convergence between space and Web3,” he said.
This convergence includes participation in manned spaceflight. “We were excited about the idea of offering a flight to someone who didn’t necessarily have the means to pay for the flight on their own, but was absolutely fascinated by space and wanted to get involved,” he said.
Skurla said the CSA bought the seat up front and then sold the NFTs on a “compressed” flight schedule. “The availability of seats is not incredibly high, so you have to bypass the missile plan,” he said. While the organization is offering up to 5,555 NFTs, he said it sold “fewer than 300” when it selected Hespanha for NS-21 and about 400 at the time of the flight.
He acknowledged that selling the NFTs did not cover the cost of the ticket. The CSA sells the NFTs in Ethereum or ETH currency, with one NFT costing 0.25 ETH, or about $450 at Ethereum’s current value.
Ethereum was significantly more valuable in late April when the CSA began selling NFTs, part of an overall sharp decline in cryptocurrency values. That appears to affect CSA’s ability to fund later flights or other projects, but Skurla said he wasn’t concerned. “We’re in a slightly different market now than when we put the NFTs up for sale,” he said. “It’s a great time for us to focus on building our core mission.”
While it looks like a high-tech raffle, he said selling the NFT and selecting one person to fly on New Shepard is part of an effort to build a broader community. “We provide a platform for everyone to address the three tenets of the CSA,” he said, which encompasses human spaceflight and support for planetary defense and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).
Skurla said CSA has identified opportunities to support both planetary defense and SETI, but has not disclosed them. NASA currently spends $150 million a year on planetary defense activities, while billionaire Yuri Milner has pledged $100 million over 10 years to a SETI effort called Breakthrough Listen.
He argued that even if CSA captures a tiny fraction of the entire crypto market, it could still raise millions of dollars to spend on space travel, planetary defense, and SETI. “It’s realistic to generate those kinds of numbers, and if we aspire to be a significant player in that space, then yes, we aspire to have those kinds of resources at our disposal.”
CSA isn’t the only crypto organization planning to fly to New Shepard. Blue origin indicated in a tweet dated April 25 that MoonDAO, another organization that sells NFTs, “bought seats on an upcoming New Shepard flight.” Neither Blue Origin nor MoonDAO have specified when these flights would take place.
In December, Blue Origin announced that Justin Lin, a Chinese cryptocurrency entrepreneur, has turned down the bid for a seat on the first crewed New Shepard flight, but, unable to leave, will instead board his own New Shepard flight in Q4 buys 2022. Lin said he will select five “space warriors” to accompany him on the flight, but since the announcement he has not shared any significant updates on the selection process or other plans for the mission.