After escape test, could Blue Origin be the next step in safe space tourism?

Blue Origin is already working on another rocket, the New Glenn, which will build on the technology of the New Shepard in order to bring people and science experiments safely into space for brief periods of time.

Blue Origin/AP/File
This Blue Origin illustration shows the capsule that would be used to take tourist into space. While developers envision ultimately taking people to orbiting habitats, the moon or beyond, the immediate future involves short flights into or near the lowest reaches of space without going into orbit.

After the surprisingly successful test launch of its capsule escape system in its New Shepard rocket, Amazon chief executive officer Jeff Bezos’ private space company Blue Origin is one step closer to bringing humans, including tourists, to space. 

To that end, Blue Origin is already working on another rocket, the New Glenn, which will build on the technology of the New Shepard in order to bring people and science experiments into space for brief periods of time. Although it is still in development, Blue Origin is already thinking about selling New Glenn tickets at an as yet to be determined price. 

"We're going to make sure that our astronauts that fly on New Shepard are going to get first access to tickets on New Glenn," Ariane Cornell, a member of the company's Strategy and Business Development team, said Wednesday during the live webcast of New Shepard's in-flight escape test.

Wednesday's successful launch of the escape motor, which would propel the capsule to safety in the event of a booster malfunction, provided a reassurance about the project's safety as it continues along the path to crewed space travel.

It also showcased a mechanism by which the price of space travel, crewed or uncrewed, could be driven down. Not only did the rocket booster land properly, meaning that it could potentially be reused – although the one used in Wednesday's test will be retired – but Blue Origin’s rocket design does not require a new escape motor for every flight, unlike many previous rocket models.

“It’s definitely a proof of concept and good news,” Phil Smith, a senior space analyst at the Tauri Group, an aerospace consulting firm, told the Los Angeles Times. “They absolutely intend to launch human beings in New Shepard. This flight goes a long way to proving it’s safe.”

The next step is to test the New Shepard’s escape system again, this time on a crew on board the capsule. These tests are slated to take place next year, with the first tourist ventures beginning as early as 2018.

The proposed “Astronaut Experience” would include travel to the company’s Texas plains launch site, a day of training, and, of course, the actual launch into space. During the launch, tourist astronauts will experience 150 seconds of 3G force before crossing over the Kármán Line into space, where they can observe the curvature of the Earth.

Currently, Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace are charging $250,000 and $150,000, respectively, reports, for sub-orbital trips that bring space tourists to the end of the earth’s atmosphere but do not actually cross the Kármán Line. Therefore, the Astronaut Experience will likely come with an even heftier price tag.

In the meantime, Blue Origin will likely continue in the satellite launching business.

“There’s more money in the satellite transportation market,” Bill Ostrove, an aerospace and defense analyst with Forecast International, told the L.A. Times. “A lot of companies are starting to push more toward that and use that to generate cash and revenues before getting into this space tourism market, which is more exciting and possibly has a potential in the future but right now is not generating a lot of money.”

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