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Now it’s Jeff Bezos’ turn to make history with flight into space

Just over a week after Richard Branson flew to the edge of space, fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos is set for a similarly high-stakes trip aboard his own rocket.

Bezos will attempt to fly to space on Tuesday, July 20, launching aboard a rocket and capsule developed by Blue Origin, the Amazon founder’s private space company. It will be the first crewed launch for Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket, and if successful, Bezos will make history for taking part in the first unpiloted suborbital flight with a civilian crew.

Several other milestones may be set on the trip. Joining Bezos will be one passenger who stands to become the oldest person to reach space and another who would be the youngest.

Wally Funk, 82, is a former test pilot who was one of the Mercury 13 women who underwent training in the 1960s to demonstrate that women could meet NASA’s standards for its astronaut corps. At 18, the Dutch teenager Oliver Daemen could become the youngest astronaut. Rounding out the four-person crew is Bezos’ brother, Mark.

“Ever since I was five years old, I’ve dreamed of traveling to space,” Bezos wrote June 7 in an Instagram post announcing the flight. “On July 20th, I will take that journey with my brother. The greatest adventure, with my best friend.”

The New Shepard rocket launches from a site in the West Texas desert, southeast of El Paso. Since it’s a suborbital flight, the capsule will not enter into orbit around Earth, but will instead reach the edge of space, at an altitude of around 65 miles, where passengers will experience several minutes of weightlessness.

The capsule will then descend under parachutes and land again in the Texas desert. The entire journey is expected to last roughly 10 minutes.

The launch is an important step for Blue Origin, which is banking on a future market for high-priced joyrides to space. Blue Origin is hoping to begin operational flights with paying passengers in the near future, and while the company has not announced the price of individual tickets, they are expected to cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Bezos’ attempt to reach space comes after Branson took part in a risky test flight on July 11 aboard a rocket-powered vehicle developed by his private space company, Virgin Galactic. But unlike Virgin Galactic’s Unity space plane, the New Shepard rocket and capsule fly autonomously, without pilots onboard.

Blue Origin’s capsule is also designed to reach a higher altitude than Virgin Galactic’s vehicle. The edge of space is often defined by the so-called Kármán line, at an altitude of 62 miles. While the New Shepard capsule flies above the Kármán line, Virgin Galactic’s craft reached an altitude of around 53 miles during Branson’s flight.

This discrepancy has fueled competition between the rival billionaires, with Blue Origin officials suggesting that Virgin Galactic’s flights don’t actually reach suborbital space.

Branson and his crew were eligible to receive their commercial astronaut wings, however, because the Federal Aviation Administration and the United States Air Force recognize the boundary of space at 50 miles.

Both Branson’s and Bezos’ flight could jump-start the space tourism industry, which until now, has made slow progress over the last two decades, said Marco Caceres, a space industry analyst with the Teal Group Corporation. Private citizens have paid for orbital flights to the International Space Station before, but all were launched aboard Soyuz rockets and capsules operated by the Russian Space Agency.

“For all practical purposes, the space tourism industry doesn’t really exist right now,” he said. “This officially marks the beginning.”

In addition to suborbital jaunts from Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, is planning orbital tourism flights, beginning with the first mission to space with an all-civilian crew this year.

Caceres said all of these tourism ventures could become a lucrative sector of the commercial spaceflight industry, but it will likely take time.

“If it’s one flight every few months, that’s not enough to create an industry,” he said. “But if these companies start launching on a weekly basis, and you start seeing dozens or hundreds of these flights, that’s when you can feel like this is something real.”

Branson, Bezos and Musk have all faced backlash for their private spaceflight aspirations, with some criticizing the billionaire entrepreneurs for investing in frivolous, self-serving ventures.

But such criticisms are short-sighted, said Jim Cantrell, CEO of Phantom Space, an Arizona-based startup that aims to build and launch commercial satellites, and a former executive at SpaceX.

“You can’t look at it in the context of this one hop to space,” Cantrell said. “You have to look at it in the context of the bigger picture. This used to all be government dominated, but we’ve gotten to the point where individuals can do this. That’s the hopeful, inspiration part of all this.”

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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