This time it went all the way to the top. Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos and three companions watched the sky turn from blue to black on Tuesday as their reusable rocket and space capsule system “New Shepard” crossed the so-called Kármán Line, the border between the earth’s atmosphere and space. The flight was over as quickly as it had started.
At around 9:25 a.m. East Coast Time, Bezos and his fellow passengers landed safely and successfully completed the company’s first manned suborbital flight – an important step in Blue Origin’s journey to providing commercial spaceflight to paying customers.
Like a NASA mission
Compared to the launch of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo earlier this month, a type of space plane that took founder Richard Branson into space, Bezos’ short trip was more reminiscent of a NASA mission, with a vertical takeoff, large parachutes and an air-cushioned, soft one Landing.
Ramon Lugo III, aerospace engineer and director of the Florida Space Institute, sees huge differences between the space approaches Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are taking. Both companies can be happy to have transported people into space who are not considered astronauts in the classic sense. But only Blue Origin should really advance commercial space travel, the expert believes.
The main difference was how the two groups got into space. Virgin Galactic’s mission lasted about an hour and included a “mothership” jet that took the spaceplane and crew to a certain altitude before launching it. The spacecraft then fired its rocket engines to fly to the desired altitude – before sliding back to Earth. “If you look at Branson’s spaceship, it basically just creates a transportation system that is very similar to a commercial airline. You will take off at an airport and land at an airport,” says Lugo.
Bezos is the traditionalist
Bezos’ project is what most aerospace engineers would call a traditional twist on a manned spacecraft, Lugo says. The entire launch and re-entry phase of Blue Origin took about 10 minutes. The crew took off from a capsule that was mounted on the nose of a missile. The missile and capsule then separated at the desired altitude.
The rocket floated back to the launch site (or next to it). The capsule and crew then went into space – around 107 kilometers high. The vehicle then fell back to earth and then parachuted to land.
Regardless of their differences, commented experts, both flights represent important milestones for the future of space travel. “These spaceships show us travel in a completely new way, just as the pioneers of the early aircraft did,” says Elaine Petro, professor of mechanical engineering and air and aerospace engineering at Cornell University.
Not only important for space
The expert believes that both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin could not only bring people closer to Earth orbit, but could also develop new approaches for faster travel across continents, as both vehicles can reach four to five times the speed of a normal airplane.
Petro was encouraged by the pace of progress she had seen in private space travel. “Ten years ago the Obama administration pushed for the expansion of the commercial launcher industry. Now, two public space platforms with crews have flown in the last week – and SpaceX has also been tasked with taking astronauts to the moon,” she says.
And what’s next for Blue Origin? Although commercial space tourism is only just beginning, Bezos hopes that more flights could bring costs down so that everyone will have the chance to experience the beauty above the earth in the next few decades. The Bezos platform also lends itself to competing with SpaceX and Co. in the long term – also because it involves “heavy duty” rocket technology. Competitor Branson wants to fully rely on the tourism business – and should already have hundreds of registrations.