More than a year after a failed test flight, Jeff Bezos’ space tourism company Blue Origin is ready to launch its New Shepard rocket on an uncrewed science mission today. The suborbital rocket, designed to take paying customers to the edge of space and back, will lift off from Blue Origin’s private facilities in rural West Texas.
This will be the 23rd flight for the reusable New Shepard rocket and capsule system. It marks a critical return to flight for Blue Origin’s space tourism program after safety concerns emerged from the previous mission. In September 2022, a New Shepard rocket experienced a major malfunction moments after liftoff, causing the crew capsule to automatically eject from the failing booster. While no one was hurt, the incident raised questions about the rocket’s overall safety and reliability.
Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos has since defended New Shepard’s escape system, which he says performs flawlessly. “It is the reason that I am comfortable letting anyone go on New Shepard,” Bezos told CNN in a recent interview. However, he acknowledged that the immense power involved in rocket launches means they can never be made perfectly safe. “The only way to improve safety is to have an escape system,” he said.
Today’s mission does not include any human passengers, allowing engineers an opportunity to verify that the system works properly again before putting lives on the line. A successful flight would help restore confidence among aspiring citizen astronauts and position Blue Origin to finally start flying ticketed customers regularly this year.
A Market Emerging for Short Space Tourism Trips
Blue Origin is targeting an emerging market for brief, suborbital space tourism trips just beyond the boundary of space. For 5-10 minutes of weightlessness and unmatched views, passengers can pay around $200,000-300,000 for a seat aboard New Shepard.
While still exclusive, it is far more affordable than longer orbital flights brokered by competitors like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Those trips cost tens of millions of dollars and involve more training, making Blue Origin’s experience potentially accessible to a wider swath of wealthy thrill-seekers.
American businessman Dennis Tito is typically regarded as the world’s first space tourist back in 2001, having paid Russia some $20 million for a trip to the International Space Station. As technology improves and demand rises among ultra-high net worth individuals, Blue Origin looks to establish itself as a leader in the promising new sector.
Few Can Resist Views of Earth from Space
Aside from bragging rights, space tourists are primarily paying for unique views of Earth against the black cosmos that few humans have had the chance to witness firsthand. New Shepard flies to over 60 miles altitude, officially crossing the boundary line used by NASA and others to mark the beginning of outer space.
At the apex of flight, passengers experience about 5 minutes of weightlessness and can unstrap from seats to freely float about the capsule’s interior. But the main highlight occurs just beforehand, when the rocket shuts off and the capsule continues coasting upward in silence. This offers prime sightseeing opportunity as Earth’s curvature becomes visible through large windows specially designed for visually striking views.
Upon descent, passengers pull 5 Gs of force as New Shepard deploys massive parachutes for its gentle landing back down on the Texas desert floor. From liftoff to soft touchdown, the entire exhilarating trip lasts just 11 minutes. It’s a brief but intense adventure that enthusiasts argue brings life-changing perspective.
With today’s successful launch, Blue Origin looks to build back operational momentum through 2023. More test flights with payload are expected in the coming months as engineers make final verifications ahead of flying private citizens soon.