A little while ago, Blue Origin conducted the first crewed flight, which included owner Jeff Bezos, of its New Shepard rocket. It blasted off from the company’s spaceport in Van Horn, Texas, and after about 3 minutes the spacecraft named “RSS First Step” separated from the rocket and reached an altitude of a little more than 106 kilometers, more than the 100 kilometers of the Kármán Line that officially marks the boundary with space. Both the single-stage rocket and the spacecraft are reusable, so both landed at the end of the flight.
Jeff Bezos has been developing his own space program with Blue Origin for years. The New Shepard rocket, the one that currently exists and conducted test flights, has both scientific purposes, with the possibility of bringing on board instruments for various types of surveys, and space tourism. Under this point of view, it competes with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which conducted its first flight with passengers on July 11.
In this flight of the New Shepard rocket, identified as NS-16, there were 4 people: Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, the aviator Wally Funk, who is the oldest person to fly a rocket with her 82 years, and Oliver Daemen, the youngest person to fly a rocket at 18. In a flight that lasted just over 10 minutes, the passengers were able to admire the view thanks to windows built specifically for space tourists. The flight is fully automated, so the spacecraft launched atop the New Shepard rocket don’t require pilots.
There’s no official information on the ticket price for a flight on the New Shepard rocket but it’s expected to be close to the $250,000 requested by rival Virgin Galactic. The two companies have been working for years on their projects, which are very different since Blue Origin uses a classic rocket while Virgin Galactic uses a spaceplane, but they ended up conducting the first flights with passengers a few days apart. This rivalry helped turn these events into front-page news even if they’re “only” suborbital flights.
From a technological point of view, the New Shepard is a small rocket that has the merit of being reusable. The test flights already proved the proper functioning of the landing system and the rocket used today accomplished its third flight. The New Shepard is much smaller than SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and only takes short suborbital flights but Blue Origin is the second company after Elon Musk’s to have a reusable rocket and intends to apply those technologies to much larger rockets.