Blue Origin Launches Space Tourism Test Rocket

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Space firm of Jeff Bezos launches its 12th test flight of its rocket designed to carry tourists into space

Blue Origin, the space exploration company of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, has launched its 12th and possible last test flight of its rocket designed for space tourists.

The rocket (with no crew on board) blasted off from a test site in rural Texas on Wednesday and reached more than 60 miles into the upper atmosphere. It was carrying the ‘New Shepard’ capsule, which in future flights will house paying passengers. This capsule is said to be equipped with large windows for panoramic views.

It has been a busy time for the space firm. In October this year Blue Origin signed deals with a number of companies for a lunar landing system, as it no longer plans to build its giant lunar lander (called the Blue Moon lunar lander) for NASA by itself.

Test flight

Instead it partnered up Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper, to jointly develop a lunar landing system for the space agency capable of taking humans to and from the Moon’s surface.

But the rocket launch of Wednesday is entirely different from its NASA project, namely the taking of rich space tourists into space.

In this regard it will be competing directly with the likes of Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company founded by Richard Branson, which aims to fly wealthy passengers on scenic trips to suborbital space.

The Blue Origin rocket flight was the 12th uncrewed test flight and could one of its final test flights, although the firm has not said when it will be ready to begin taking paying customers.

CNN reported that earlier this year, Ariane Cornell, Blue Origin’s director of sales, said the company was looking to fly passengers in 2019.

But those plans changed, and during the webcast of Wednesday’s launch, she reportedly said only that the company is getting “very close.”

Space travel

The capsule, which will house passengers, is designed to detach from the rocket near the top of its flight path.

During Wednesday’s test flight, CNN said that it climbed about 343,000 feet, or 65 miles. Future passengers will be able to experience a few minutes of weightlessness before the descent.

Three parachutes are used to slow the capsule as it falls back to Earth, and it was reportedly travelling about 16 miles per hour before hitting the ground on Wednesday. The trip lasted just over 10 minutes from takeoff to landing.

The rocket meanwhile, after it detached the capsule, reignited its engine to execute a landing back on the launch site. This reusuability, (as SpaceX rockets do) means that New Shepard can land and fly again with “minimal refurbishment” – a key issuing in bringing down the cost per launch.

Virgin Galactic is expected to launch the first paying customers on its supersonic space plane by mid-2020, at a cost of $200,000 and $250,000 per seat.

Blue Origin has yet to publicly confirmed how much its tickets will cost.

Blue Origin is funded solely by Jeff Bezos, whose $100 billion-plus fortune makes him one of the richest people in the world.

In 2017 Bezos sold 1 million shares worth a staggering $940.74million (£727m) as he continued to plough funds into space venture.

He has admitted he sells about $1bn (£773m) in Amazon stock per year to fund Blue Origin.

The Blue Origin mission is to build “a road to space with our reusable launch vehicles,” but initially the firm aims to send tourists on brief flights into suborbital space where they can experience weightlessness and gain a view of the Earth.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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