On the surface, Blue Origin and SpaceX have several things in common. They were both founded by technology billionaires, and they both develop reusable rocket technology. However, while Elon Musk’s SpaceX is focused on cargo launches and eventual astronaut transport to the International Space Station (ISS), Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin aims to dominate the potentially lucrative market for space tourism. The company conducted a high-stakes test flight this week, and it went off without a hitch.
The New Shepard rocket from Blue Origin is nowhere near as powerful as the Falcon 9 we hear about all the time. This vehicle has enough thrust to take its small passenger capsule straight up past the Karman Line (around 60 miles high) that divides Earth from space. Thus, anyone riding the New Shepard will become an astronaut.
New Shepard can come down for a soft landing after launching into space, which is something Blue Origin has demoed in the past. Before anyone climbs aboard the crew capsule, the company wants to make sure they would be safe in the event of a rocket failure. That’s what this week’s test was all about. Blue Origin confirmed that the high-altitude escape system worked by simulating an anomaly in flight.
Blue origin let the rocket reach an altitude of 74.5 miles (120 kilometers) before separating the crew capsule from the vehicle. The team waited 20 seconds before firing the escape rocket system to make sure the New Shepard was clear. The escape rocket is a single-use solid rocket booster that can get passengers away from a bad situation quickly. It produces around 70,000 pounds of thrust for several seconds before it runs out of fuel.
Blue Origin deemed the escape rocket test a complete success. The capsule came down for a soft landing with the aid of parachutes several minutes later. Meanwhile, New Shepard executed another propulsive landing on the launchpad.
The crew pod on the recent test was unoccupied — unless you count the company’s test flight dummy Mannequin Skywalker. Blue Origin hopes to begin taking people up in the not-too-distant future. It doesn’t have a firm timeline, but it expects to sell tickets for between $200,000 and $300,000 (no one has been allowed to reserve a seat yet). That substantial sum will get you several minutes of weightlessness as the rocket touches the edge of space and falls back to Earth. Blue Origin may also branch out to scientific and cargo missions at a later date.
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