Blue Origin, the private space firm started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has successfully completed a test launch of its revised New Shepard rocket. This is the first launch for Blue Origin in more than a year, and it’s also the first time it has tested its new Crew Capsule 2.0. This brings Blue Origin one step closer to sending up human passengers.
This was the first launch of the upgraded new Shepard, but it’s still a rather humble rocket even with the latest design improvements. New Shepard is a single-stage rocket, so it’s just the booster you see at launch, plus a payload. In this case, the payload is the new (unmanned) Crew Capsule 2.0. The rocket is designed to be reusable, so after releasing the payload, it heads back down to Earth and lands vertically, much like the Falcon 9’s first stage.
In the latest test, Blue Origin sent the New Shepard straight up to an altitude of 322,000 feet (about 61 miles), just barely past the generally accepted “Karman Line” separating the atmosphere from space. At that point, the capsule was jettisoned and began falling back into the atmosphere. It deployed a drogue chute to slow its descent, followed by three large parachutes that brought it down for a gentle 1 mph landing. Meanwhile, the booster reignited its BE-3 engine and deployed landing legs to set down on the launch pad.
The next revision of new Shepard next year will be the first one intended to take passengers into space. It’ll do that with the help of the new Crew Capsule. Blue Origin is clearly proud of the new spacecraft, which sports huge windows measuring 2.4 feet by 3.6 feet. They’re by far the largest windows on any spacecraft. It will have space for up to six space tourists, researchers, or experiments on each launch, but it’s not designed for long-term orbital trips. A commercial launch will look a lot like this one — the rocket goes up to the edge of space, releases the crew module, and it comes back down.
Blue Origin has now had six successful tests of New Shepard in a row. If the final revision of its rocket performs as expected next year, passengers could begin flying in late 2018 or early 2019. The company hasn’t revealed how much a trip will cost, but hopefully it’s less than the $ 150,000+ Virgin Galactic is pushing.