Space Tourism is Real

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, with characteristic entrepreneurial zeal, has left online shopping behind to branch out into other fields. In this case, space tourism.

His space company Blue Origin announced that it's expecting crewed test flights to begin next year and foresees flying passengers in 2018.

The announcement was made by Bezos during a media tour of the Blue Origin manufacturing facility. This represents the first time that a target date has been announced for when the company will begin commercial space operations with its reusable, suborbital New Shepard vehicle. Blue Origin is expecting to build six of the vehicles.

"We’ll probably fly test pilots in 2017, and if we’re successful then I’d imagine putting paying astronauts on in 2018,” Bezos said.

His hopes may be a little sanguine, but they match the undoubted ambition of his company, which has been laboring quietly away in the shadow of Musk's better known SpaceX, and achieving some remarkable firsts with relatively little fanfare.

The New Shepard spacecraft is an autonomous vehicle designed to fly six passengers to a height of more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) above the Earth, a sufficient enough vantage for the passengers to experience a few exhilarating minutes of weightlessness, and behold the Earth in all its stark, incomparable beauty against the inky blackness of space.

A prior test of Blue Origin’s first reusable rocket led to a failure back in April 2015, despite the capsule parachuting safely back to the ground. A second ship, however, has been able to accomplish two test flights, and Blue Origin is in the process of assembling the next two vehicular prototypes which would, for the first time, include windows for the viewing enjoyment of paying passengers.

A Flourishing Industry
Blue Origin workers assembling the New Shepard Crew Capsule. Credit: Reuters

While the company has not yet figured out a price for the trip (don't expect free shipping on orders over $25), Bezos said that their pricing would be competitive with what other space companies will charge—such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic has been selling tickets for a flight on SpaceShipTwo for $250,000. SpaceShipTwo will have space for six passengers and two pilots. The company has recently unveiled its second spaceship, and is expecting to begin new test flights after its first spaceship was lost during a fatal test flight back in October 2014.

Other companies such as XCOR Aerospace have developed their own competing commercial spaceflight system, charging $100,000 for one person to fly alongside a pilot in its two-person space plane named Lynx.

Bezos' investment in Blue Origin has reached more than $500 million, and so far it seems to have been a productive venture. The company is expected to double its staff to 1,200 people; and it's currently working on rocket engines for United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Lockheed-Martin, Boeing and Orbital ATK.

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