Will Bezos's Blue Origin be the first company to send tourists to space?

Blue Origin launched and landed its unmanned New Shepard for the fourth time, but SpaceX promises to venture farther into space at a cheaper price.

Blue Origin/AP
Blue Origin's New Shepard, an unmanned rocket, prepares to land in an area near Van Horn, Texas, Sunday, June 19, 2016. The private space company run by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has completed its fourth successful unmanned rocket launch and safe landing in West Texas using the same vehicle.

The space (tourist) race is on.

Blue Origin, owned by Amazon chief executive officer Jeff Bezos, completed Sunday its fourth successful unmanned launch and landing of its reusable New Shepard rocket. The suborbital flight is months ahead of SpaceX’s fourth test of its reusable rocket, which owner Elon Musk announced less than two weeks ago. Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic, owned by Mr. Bezos and Mr. Musks’s fellow billionaire Richard Branson, are vying to be the first private company to bring people to space.

As a new space race plays out, these private space companies and other unorthodox contenders such as India are lowering the cost of space travel.  

Blue Origin was the first private space company to feature a reusable rocket that entered space and landed again, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Corey Fedde reported in January. “The company’s idea of reuse is entirely vertical,” wrote Mr. Fedde. “The rocket launches to space, releases its capsule, and then descends. Before impact the boosters are fired to ensure a safe landing. The capsule descends from space and lands via parachutes.”

SpaceX has no plans to bring tourists into suborbital space. It’s plans are to bring astronauts to the International Space Station and beyond, with the ultimate goal of putting colonists on other planets.

Sunday’s flight of the New Shepard was to test if one parachute failed to deploy during descent, which could turn into a tragedy if astronauts are onboard, according to TechCrunch. Bezos previously brought up the dangers of such a scenario, referring to how one of Apollo 15’s parachutes failed to deploy on its way back from the moon in 1971.

New Shepard launched from Blue Origin’s test facility in West Texas. The rocket reached a suborbital altitude of about 63 miles before it descended and landed upright.

Like Blue Origin, SpaceX is testing a reusable rocket. One advantage of reuse is it can save tens of millions of dollars per flight, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s chief operating officer said in March.

SpaceX has looked to save money other ways, in particular by landing a rocket at sea. Landing a rocket at sea is more difficult than landing on dry land. But the risk might be worth the reward, as the Monitor's Max Lewontin explained:

It comes with a key bonus: fuel that would ordinarily be used to make a successful landing on land can instead by used to accelerate a rocket’s payload to a higher orbit, Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told the Christian Science Monitor in January.

The sea landings mean SpaceX can offer higher orbits (at higher prices) and put bigger payloads in orbit (for more money) than competitors.

Other contenders are further driving down the cost of space travel. For example, India is developing a smaller, less expensive rocket because it has found it cannot compete with the space programs of the world’s largest economies such the US or Russia.

In May, India successfully launched a mini-rocket 43 miles to the edge of space. The company has emphasized keeping its costs down by using smaller rockets, less fuel, and a more efficient program. And it has found success doing so, as the Monitor’s Mr. Lewontin reported.

India became not only the first country to reach Mars on its first attempt, but did so in frugal fashion. Its orbiter cost a reported $74 million, less than the budget of the Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster “Gravity,” as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi quipped. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

[Editor's note: This article has been updated to include SpaceX's intended mission to transport astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit.]

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