Jeff Bezos Has Picked an Unusual Space Crew

No group like this one has ever gone to space before.

A photo of Jeff Bezos wearing sunglasses inside a Blue Origin capsule
Isaiah J. Downing / Reuters

Jeff Bezos has finalized the manifest for his company’s first passenger flight to space, and it’s a rather unusual bunch.

There’s Bezos himself, the richest person in the world, who sold some of his Amazon stock to fund his space venture, Blue Origin. His brother, Mark, with whom he wanted to share the experience. Wally Funk, an 82-year-old American pilot who in the early 1960s passed the same training tests designed for male astronauts, but was rejected by NASA. And Oliver Daemen, a Dutch 18-year-old who graduated high school just last year.

When they take off on Tuesday, they will each fulfill a personal dream, but as a crew, they’re making history: No group like this one has ever gone to space together before. Even the participants of the most diverse missions to the International Space Station have had far more in common with one another than this quartet. They were all professional astronauts, with comparable ages, educational backgrounds, and even temperaments, given that potential astronauts must undergo psychological screenings before getting the job. The motley crew of Blue Origin’s first passenger flight seems closer to a cast of offbeat characters gathered together for a zany adventure: If The Breakfast Club had the brain, the jock, the basket case, the princess, and the criminal, this Blue Origin flight has the boss, the tag-along, the real deal, and the kid.

The passengers will fly on a rocket called New Shepard, named for Alan Shepard, the first American to reach space, and they will trace a similar trajectory into space. They will blast off into the sky over the West Texas desert, cross the hazy boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, and bask in a few minutes of weightlessness, before parachuting back down to ground. Blue Origin has conducted 15 test flights of the New Shepard rocket, but has never before flown the vehicle with people on board.

Of the passengers on Bezos’s debut flight, Daemen might be the most unexpected pick. In fact, Daemen wasn’t supposed to be on this flight. Blue Origin had held an auction for one of the seats on the flight, culminating in a top bid of a whopping $28 million. But the company said today that the winner, whose name has not been disclosed, decided to skip this particular flight and go later, citing “scheduling conflicts,” so the company slotted in Daemen, a soon-to-be physics student at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands. (Blue Origin said the teen was “a participant in the auction,” but did not disclose how much the seat cost.)

Daemen and Funk, as Blue Origin pointed out in its announcement, “represent the youngest and oldest astronauts to travel to space.” But describing them by age alone elides the very different journeys they have taken to reach this point. Funk is an aviation legend who underwent more difficult tests than John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, had to, and has waited 60 years for this moment. Daemen is a teenager who took a gap year to get his pilot’s license, and the son of a private-equity executive.

According to Blue Origin, Daemen has been fascinated by space and rockets since he was 4 years old. Many people could say the same about themselves as children, but they typically have had to wait until they’re older and more qualified to go—the average age of NASA astronauts, for example, is 34, and most have advanced degrees. Daemen represents a new class of spacefarers; in the coming years, as private companies such as Blue Origin, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX make people into astronauts more readily than government agencies like NASA can, the distance between a childhood dream and reality is bound to shrink.

Expect more smorgasbord space crews like the Blue Origin one, filled with an assortment of very wealthy individuals and the people they choose to go with them. Jared Isaacman, a 38-year-old tech entrepreneur, is scheduled to fly to space on a SpaceX vehicle this fall, and he’s bringing three others with him—a physician assistant who has inspired him, an engineer who lucked out in Isaacman’s raffle, and a geoscientist who won Isaacman’s business competition. A Japanese billionaire has already put down money for a future SpaceX journey to the moon, and he has promised to bring “people from all kinds of backgrounds” with him. The rules about who can become an astronaut have changed, and the new “right stuff” is money and luck. The golden age of American spaceflight—the moon missions that inspired Bezos to get into this business—gave us a uniform set of spacefarers, military test pilots with buzz cuts. The gilded age of space tourism could give us something a lot more haphazard.