With its eye on launching its first crewed flights before the end of this year — and space tourism rides after that — Blue Origin on Wednesday, January 23 achieved another successful test flight of its reusable rocket system. The 10-minute event streamed live (above), giving viewers a clear look at the various stages of its proposed space tourism service.
Lifting off from its regular launch site in West Texas at just after 10 a.m. local time, New Shepard soared into the sky, reaching a top speed of 3,582kmh (2,226 mph). The rocket and capsule separated at an altitude of 245,000 feet (46.4 miles), 2 minutes and 43 seconds after leaving terra firma.
“At this point, if you were an astronaut on board, this is when you’re going to start to feel that weightlessness,” Blue Origin’s Ariane Cornell said during her live commentary (above).
In a nod to the company’s intention to launch space tourism trips for fare-paying passengers in the hopefully not-too-distant future, Cornell continued: “We’re going to let you unbuckle; I’ll know I’ll be doing my somersaults in there before taking in those spectacular views out of the world’s largest windows that have ever been to space.”
As the rocket descended, the crew capsule continued to gain altitude, at 4 minutes and 5 seconds reaching 350,343 feet (66.4 miles) above the earth’s surface, some four miles above the Karman line considered as the boundary between the earth’s atmosphere and space. Cornell said the altitude data was subject to confirmation.
About 7 minutes and 25 seconds after liftoff, the New Shepard booster achieved a perfect touchdown, with the capsule — its descent slowed to 16 mph by parachutes — coming down in the desert around three minutes later.
The mission enabled Blue Origin, which is led by Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, to gather more data for its launch and flight systems ahead of its first crewed test flights. The rocket also carried with it eight NASA-sponsored research and development experiments that activated during the flight.
A bunch of companies are in the race to launch space tourism flights, with Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic both claiming to be close to launching commercial services for moneyed folks able to afford a ticket (Virgin Galactic is charging $250,000 for a seat, while Blue Origin is yet to name a price).
While the two services have the same goal, the two transportation systems are markedly different.
Like Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceplane can also carry up to six passengers, but instead of a rocket, Virgin Galactic’s system uses a runway launch with a carrier aircraft that helps Unity begin its journey. The spaceplane’s rocket engines fire up once it reaches a certain altitude. The return journey is also different, with New Shepard’s capsule using parachutes for a gentle touchdown and Unity gliding back to the ground for a smooth runway landing.
SpaceX, meanwhile, is aiming to take one giant leap with a tourist space ride that involves taking Japanese billionaire entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa — along with eight artists — on a trip to the moon and back in 2023. However, the sheer scale of the project means that SpaceX could miss that schedule, if the mission ever takes place at all.
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