SpaceX made big news earlier this year when it announced plans to send two tourists on a jaunt around the moon in 2018. But SpaceX isn’t the only company involved in space tourism. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos also has a horse in this race: Blue Origin. Blue Origin has been around since 2000, but it doesn’t usually pull in the sort of splashy headlines reserved for SpaceX and its grand plans. That changed recently when Blue Origin revealed a sneak peek at its New Shepard crew capsule.
Meet New Shepard
The crew capsule is named for NASA astronaut Alan Shepard, who became the first American in space in 1961. “Our New Shepard flight test program is focused on demonstrating the performance and robustness of the system,” Bezos noted in a press release. “In parallel, we've been designing the capsule interior with an eye toward precision engineering, safety, and comfort.”
The new interior images show a black, blue, and white design scheme that looks modern, streamlined, and a bit futuristic. The reclining chairs are equipped with headrests that cradle both the back and sides of the head, which should help with making the fast ride into space atop a rocket more comfortable than you might expect.
The inside of the capsule also features an embossed triangular pattern along the walls and some subtle touches, like Blue Origin’s feather symbol painted on the outside of New Shepard and then repeated on the fabric of the seats. The capsule has not been completely finalized, so the finished spacecraft could end up looking a little different. The images are a good indication of the styling, which hints at a fairly posh, first-class accommodation sort of feel.
One of the capsule’s most notable features is the large bank of windows that are designed to give wide views of the space-flight experience. Bezos describes them as "the largest windows ever in space." Tourists will be strapped in on the ride to space, but once there, will be allowed to release their harnesses and float in microgravity. This will be a far cry from previous space tourists who spent days on board the International Space Station. The Blue Origin flights are expected to last about 11 minutes.
Getting to space
Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule can carry six people and it will travel over 328,024 feet (100 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface to reach space. The capsule will get there thanks to a powerful booster rocket. Passengers will receive a day of training prior to takeoff and will experience 3G forces on the way up and 5G forces on the way back. Parachutes will gently lower the crew capsule back to Earth.
If you want to hitch a ride on Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule, you will need to be patient. You can register your interest in becoming an astronaut with Blue Origin, but tickets, pricing, and actual launch dates aren’t available yet. Blue Origin is still in the process of testing its technologies but hopes to be sending tourists to space as early as 2018.
One of Blue Origin’s most recent accomplishments was a successful in-flight test of the crew capsule escape system.
The test took place in October 2016 and involved ejecting the capsule from the booster rocket and then lowering it back to the ground by parachute. The system is designed to kick in if there is a problem with the rocket during launch. It’s a reassuring feature for potential Blue Origin customers to see in action.
Blue Origin and SpaceX are busy with testing projects, but entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic also remains in the mix. Virgin Galactic is aiming to send a crew into space next year. Tickets are already available for future Virgin Galactic flights at a price of $250,000 each, which could give us at least a vague idea of what it might cost to ride on Blue Origin’s New Shepard.
Will SpaceX’s ambitious moon mission or Virgin Galactic’s crew plans steal Blue Origin’s thunder? The companies are locked in a fascinating battle for space-tourism bragging rights, but the history of spaceflight is full of delays and revisions. We’ll have to wait until 2018 (or beyond) to see who comes out on top.