Jeff Bezo’s space company launched the six-passenger rocket from its launchpad in Van Horn, West Texas, at 1:06 p.m., with a mannequin pilot and several scientific experiments on board. It was Blue Origin’s eighth New Shepard flight, and Sunday’s launch reached its highest point to date at 65 miles up, or about three miles higher than the generally-accepted 62 mile marker for entering space.
Before hitting the final frontier, Solstar’s Schmitt Space Communicator fired up from on board the New Shepard, providing the first commercial WiFi and Internet connection on a private rocket and allowing Solstar engineers on the ground to receive their first space-based tweet.
“Brought to you from above the Karman line,” read the tweet, referring to the official space-boundary point. “This tweet from Solstar’s Space Communicator on board #New Shepard! Testing WiFi capabilities in space for space entrepreneurs everywhere.”
Solstar President and CEO Brian Barnett, whose team has been preparing for months, declared the in-flight communications system a major success.
“It’s just starting to hit me that everything was a success,” Barnett said Monday morning. “We were able to tweet for the first time ever with a commercial rocket.”
The Santa Fe-based company is working to provide Internet and phone service in space for companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic when they begin sending paying passengers and experiments into suborbit on reusable rockets. That will enable space tourists and researchers flying on rockets or housed on future space stations to directly communicate with family, friends and colleagues on the ground.
The Schmitt Space Communicator, named after Apollo 17 astronaut and moon-walker Harrison Schmitt, began providing all expected communications about four minutes into the 10-minute flight.
“If the pilot mannequin on board was alive, it could have used the WiFi Internet connection,” Barnett said.
The Solstar crew did experience some drama in the first few minutes. The communications system powered up automatically on the New Shepard about five minutes before launch, but as the rocket neared space, the Solstar engineers decided to turn off the communicator’s automatic system because of some technical issues and instead manually operated the transmitting and receiving protocols.
Solstar programmers Charlie Whetsel and Ian Kelly stopped the autopilot manually on purpose and scrambled to write the commands, Barnett said.
“They quickly had to take the wheel, write out some text, prepare the script and fire it off,” Barnett said. “They only had about 77 seconds in space for everything to work. It was nerve wracking, but it was a complete victory.”