Taking another step toward sending passengers into space, Jeff Bezos'launched an unpiloted New Shepard capsule on a suborbital test flight Wednesday, using astronaut stand-ins before takeoff and after landing to rehearse boarding and egress procedures.
The company has not yet announced when it plans its first launch with passengers on board or how much tickets might cost. But after 15 unpiloted test flights, the system appears to be on the verge of commercial operations, giving six passengers at a time a few minutes of weightlessness and an out-of-this-world view.
"We're getting very close to sending people up to space and back," said launch commentator Ariane Cornell.
To help pave the way, company personnel walked up the launch gantry before liftoff and strapped in aboard the New Shepard capsule just as paying customers will do for an actual flight. The stand-ins tested their communications gear and reviewed launch procedures before exiting to clear the pad for flight.
Wednesday's flight began at 12:51 p.m. ET when the New Shepard rocket's hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine ignited with a rush of flaming exhaust at Blue Origin's remote Van Horn, Texas, flight test facility.
The stubby rocket quickly climbed away from Launch Site One, steadily accelerating as it consumed propellants and lost weight, reaching a maximum velocity of 2,247 mph before releasing the crew capsule about two minutes and 40 seconds after liftoff.
The capsule then soared to an altitude of 66 miles (348,753 feet), well above the 50-mile-high lower "boundary" of space, before beginning the long plunge back to Earth. Inside, an instrumented test dummy — Mannequin Skywalker — experienced three to five minutes of microgravity before atmospheric deceleration forces set in.
The New Shepard booster, meanwhile, homed in on its landing pad, restarting its engine and deploying four short landing legs before settling to an on-target touchdown. The capsule floated to a relatively gentle landing a short distance away, slowed as usual by three large parachutes.
After touchdown, the astronaut stand-ins were expected to re-enter the capsule and rehearse the same post-landing procedures commercial crews will use after their flights.
The New Shepard system is designed to carry space tourists, government and civilian researchers and a variety of payloads to altitudes just above the discernible atmosphere, providing a few minutes of microgravity, along with panoramic views through six large windows.
NASA, the Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration consider 50 miles to be the dividing line between space and the discernible atmosphere while the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, an international governing body for aviation-related sports and records, puts the threshold at 100 kilometers, or 62 miles.
The New Shepard capsule routinely exceeds both of those standards.
The launching marked the 15th flight of a New Shepard rocket and capsule since the program's maiden flight six years ago and the second flight of the first Blue Origin booster and capsule dedicated to upcoming commercial astronaut missions.
New Shepard is a strictly suborbital rocket and spacecraft that is not capable of achieving the velocities required to reach orbit. It will compete with Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic suborbital spaceplane for commercial passengers and payloads.
But Blue Origin is developing orbit-class New Glenn rockets that will use a powerful new company-designed engine, the BE-4, to help boost large satellites into orbit. The company has built a huge rocket factory just outside the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to manufacture the rockets and is developing a launch complex at the nearby Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
The company also is leading a team, one of three, designing a moon lander to carry astronauts to and from the lunar surface in. NASA is expected to award contracts to one and possibly two teams over the next few weeks.